SPRINGFIELD, Mo.- On Thursday, April 8, employees with the City of Springfield and the Missouri Department of Transportation cleared out a homeless camp of nearly 12 people.

Shortly after the camp’s clearing, Pastor of The Connecting Grounds and known homeless advocate, Christie Love, took to Facebook to voice concerns about how the clearing was handled.

“I do believe that there was previous notice given to these campers,” Love said Thursday. “

The issue, though, is really we have a situation in Springfield where even when notice is given, there’s still nowhere for anybody to go.”

Love says this most recently cleared site, set up under a section of Chestnut Expressway that turns into a bridge near Harry Cooper Supply Company, isn’t the first she’s seen people removed from in recent weeks.

“Over the last four months, almost every single campsite that we know of that we have serviced has been disrupted or displaced,” says Love.

The City of Springfield and MoDOT crews say the camp was cleared due to safety concerns. Below is a statement Ozarks First received from MoDOT about Thursday’s evacuation.

MoDOT and the City of Springfield have been working together for many weeks to address concerns about the safety and locations of homeless encampments. Ultimately, MoDOT requested the city’s assistance and resources toward mitigating the safety and health concerns posed by homeless encampments on Missouri’s roadway right of way. In several instances, encampments created several safety concerns for the department. Individuals were encamped in areas where they were at risk if traffic inadvertently left the roadway, where the encampment itself blocked access to signal and lighting equipment, and where debris, open fires and grills hazarded bridges and overpasses. In those areas, again per CDC guidance, MoDOT has requested the assistance of the City of Springfield, and local assistance groups for the unsheltered such as One Door, to find available individual housing options. MoDOT worked with, and continues to work with, the City to ensure that any actions comply with current CDC policies and that the rights and liberties of the individuals at the encampment are also protected.

Statement from MoDOT

Ozarks First also reached out to the City of Springfield about its involvement in Thursday’s cleanup. The City replied that crews with homeless outreach groups One Door and PATH visited the site four times before Thursday, specifically mentioning an encounter the previous Tuesday, during which an outreach team accompanied Springfield Police officers in alerting residents to Thursday’s camp cleanup.

Below is a timeline of events leading up to Thursday’s camp cleanup, as provided to Ozarks First by the City of Springfield:

March 26, 2021

MoDOT officials called for a Springfield Police Department (SPD) escort for an onsite visit to the property where a homeless encampment is located. SPD provided the escort and called One Door to provide a courtesy heads up that it was likely MoDOT would be asking the individuals trespassing on their land to leave.

March 29, 2021

One Door dispatched an outreach team to ensure those in the encampment were connected with resources and made aware they would likely need to relocate. At that time, those present were in the process of cleaning up trash and appeared to already be making plans to relocate; everyone present indicated an awareness of local resources. 

April 4, 2021

SPD, Public Works, MoDOT and other City officials participated in a conference call to discuss the issue. MoDOT requested using the City’s Homeless Encampment Protocol, providing a 48-hour notice to vacate. 

April 6, 2021

SPD contacted One Door and representatives from all of the agencies working together did a site visit.

SPD and One Door made contact with six people there at the time and told them about the need to vacate, and were given 48 hours notice and that clean up would begin Thursday. There were an additional 3-4 tents that were obviously being used for storage and not sleeping and one tent that had been abandoned. According to those who conducted outreach, there appeared to be a lot of abandoned belongings. Multiple people were connected to O’Reilly Center for Hope resources (e.g., showers/laundry, ID assistance, updated housing assessments) and given bus passes, trash bags to help with clean-up, information on other available services, etc. 

April 7, 2021

SPD went back and found an additional four people there. All responded that they knew about the deadline to move and declined assistance from One Door. They said they were in the process of getting their stuff packed. 

April 8, 2021

When the MoDOT cleanup crew and SPD arrived, there were still five tents and two people. SPD woke them up. They acknowledged that they knew about the timeline to evacuate. When asked if they needed assistance moving their tents and other belongings, they replied. “We can get other tents.” SPD reminded them that One Door has other resources.

ABOVE: Ozarks First Reporter, Tony Nguyen spoke with those displaced by Thursday’s camp evacuation.

This isn’t the first time a homeless camp removal caused controversy between homeless advocates and Springfield officials. In December 2020, homeless people were evicted from a property after complaints of the property being a nuisance.

That same week, the Springfield NAACP, The Connecting Grounds, and other shelters formed The NAACP Economic Justice Task Force.

On November 30, the task force wrote a letter to the Springfield City Council, Mayor McClure, City Manager Jason Gage, and Police Chief Paul Williams, asking that “unsheltered individuals be allowed the use of tents and tarps to create shelter for themselves through the end of the projected frost season, which is May 1, or the end of the social distancing restrictions in place due to COVID-19 — whichever is later.”

City leaders replied with a letter of their own. The Springfield City Council cited select dates showing shelters that did not reach capacity on nights they were open.

“Because the truth of the matter is, in Springfield, there is no place for them to go. And that’s exactly what we’re asking city council to do is designate a safe, legal place where we can take everybody,” Love told Ozarks First in December.

After the eviction in December, there was a push to provide cold weather shelters for the homeless population. In late January, Springfield City Council developed a solution for ongoing obstacles faced by the city’s homeless population.

Almost $100,000 was approved in emergency funding to provide more cold weather shelters.

A big chunk of that sum, $60,000, will go towards ten teardrop campers at the Revive 66 Campground. There, unsheltered people will be given a place stay on cold nights. Revive 66, created by the founders of Eden Village, came about to help the homeless during the winter months.

After the December 2020 camp eviction, some churches were inspired to serve as cold weather shelters. Before opening up to the homeless, they’d need approval from city government.

Back in the Summer of 2017, the City of Springfield organized a days-long camp evacuation after receiving multiple reports of a homeless village near a Wal-Mart on E. Kearney. Since then, city officials have offered employment opportunities and resources to those removed from the E. Kearney camp.

One of these efforts, Wheels to Work, existed for mere months before coming to a halt in December of 2017.

Looking forward, Love says, she wants a change in how homeless evictions are handled. She says she wants a place where the homeless population can go to get off the streets.

“We have to have a place for people to go. I mean cannot just keep moving people from one place to the next place to the next place, and acting that 24-hour protocol every time that they move and get situated,” says Love.

During these forced transitions, she says, important documents are often lost, homeless services are often disrupted, and it can be harder for case managers to find their clients.

“I really think we need to find a place where we can provide trash service and security and porta-potties, set up an area where people can safely camp so they can look for jobs, they can look for different things that need to be taken care of so we can break these cycles,” says Love.

The City of Springfield released the following statement Thurday:

The City, as well as all of the agencies involved in responding to this crisis, are committed to connecting those in need with shelter and other resources available. We have people trying to live in the most deplorable of situations. They are not safe. It is our hope that they are connecting with the resources they need for solid shelter and a pathway to a stable home. 

Cora Scott, Director of Public Information & Civic Engagement for the City of Springfield

Love says her team has been following CDC guidelines, which recommend not disrupting homeless encampments. The CDC has released new guidelines since the pandemic to reduce the spread of COVID-19 among the homeless population.

According to those guidelines, if individual housing options are not available, you should allow people living unsheltered or in encampments to remain where they are.

The agency also adds that clearing homeless camps can cause people to disperse throughout the community and break connections with service providers. This increases the potential for infectious disease spread.