Kansas lawmakers entertain Texas group’s plan to penalize homeless

By: - March 3, 2023 1:35 pm
Eric Arganbright appears before lawmakers

Eric Arganbright appears before lawmakers March 2, 2023, to share his personal story about being homeless as a child. Proposed legislation would have made his mother a criminal, he said. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

TOPEKA — Eric Arganbright got personal Thursday as he urged lawmakers to reject an out-of-state think tank’s model legislation for criminalizing homeless people.

Appearing before the House Welfare Reform Committee, Arganbright said he experienced homelessness as a child after his father — a Methodist minister — abandoned his mother. The family had lived in the church parsonage in Morganville, a town of about 500 people in Clay County. He was 10 years old when he woke up to find his father was gone.

His mother had never had a job outside of being a preacher’s wife. She found jobs working at a gas station, diner and hotel, each in a different area. They ended up staying along the Republican River and in the back of a car at Milford Lake.

“The problem with this specific bill, and the reason I stand in opposition of it, is specifically because it would have criminalized my mother and people like my mother,” Arganbright said. “Because that’s what rural homelessness looks like in the state of Kansas.”

Arganbright, now the director of community engagement for the Kansas Statewide Homeless Coalition, and dozens of other Kansans who have direct knowledge of homelessness offered a rebuke to House Bill 2430. The only supporter of the bill was Judge Glock, senior fellow at the Texas-based Cicero Institute, which has advocated for the same legislation in other states.

Rep. Francis Awerkamp
Rep. Francis Awerkamp, a St. Marys Republican, serves as chairman of the House Welfare Reform Committee. He questioned the merits of continually providing housing for a growing homeless population. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

St. Marys Republican Rep. Francis Awerkamp offered Glock a platform to promote his controversial approach to solving homelessness by making it a crime. An energetic crowd spilled out of his committee room and into the room next door.

The hearing lasted two hours. After Glock was given 10 minutes to speak, and additional time to answer questions, the opponents of the bill were given two minutes each. That time was cut in half as the meeting went long and 24 opponents were allowed to highlight shortcomings of the bill.

In a brief interview that followed, Awerkamp appeared reluctant to explain why he agreed to hold a hearing on the legislation.

“As you can tell, it’s an important topic,” Awerkamp said. “We decided it’s good to learn about what’s going on.”

Judge Glock and Rabbi Moti Rieber
Judge Glock, senior fellow at the Cicero Institute, listens to testimony March 2, 2023, on the model legislation he alone supports while the Rabbi Moti Rieber stands behind him. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Glock described the legislation as a “modest” effort to encourage people “who are living on the street to get the help they need.” He rattled off disputed numbers, without context, from Austin, Texas, and Colorado Springs as evidence that his method is an effective way of persuading people to go back to their families or get help for mental health needs.

“There’s always an alternative, and there’s simply no worse place on earth for someone to be than unsupervised in an unsanctioned camping lot in public,” Glock said.

The bill, which was formally introduced by Rep. Brian Bergkamp, R-Wichita, would make it illegal to use state or local government property for unauthorized sleeping, camping or long-term shelters. Violations would be considered misdemeanors and carry a $1 fine. Towns and cities with a higher per-capita rate of homelessness than the state average would lose state funding. The attorney general could also sue local governments that fail to enforce ordinances that apply to homeless populations.

Rep. Paul Waggoner, R-Hutchinson, repeatedly called it a “simple bill” that merely requires cities to enforce existing ordinances.

The two dozen people who spoke in front of the committee emphasized the lack of affordable housing as a leading cause of homelessness, that a criminal record presents a barrier to finding a permanent residence and that people in Kansas are best suited to find solutions.

“On the one hand, you have all these faith communities and first responders and housing advocates and homeless experts and developers, and on the other hand you have one right-wing think tank from Texas, and that speaks volumes,” said Rabbi Moti Rieber, executive director of Kansas Interfaith Action.

Charles Carney said he and his wife have welcomed the homeless poor into their house near downtown Kansas City, Kansas, for the past 18 years.

He estimated about 60 people have lived with them and, addressing one of Glock’s assertions, said none of them has gone back to live with family. If they could, Carney said, they would already be living with family.

“I talked to a gentleman this morning who was homeless for years,” Carney said. “I said, ‘What do you think of this?’ He said, ‘Well, this sounds like the bait and switch to me. What they’re gonna do is they’re going to kick me out of the foothold that I have developed and put me in a jail cell. And when I get back out, I’m not gonna have anywhere to go.’ ”

Lawmakers should “trust the experts,” Carney said, “and there’s like 40 of them in this room, and none of them are for this bill.”

“The Bible doesn’t say lock up and erase the stranger,” Carney said. “It says welcome the stranger with open arms. It doesn’t say when I was homeless, you gave me the trauma of a jail cell. It doesn’t say when I was downtrodden, you kicked me even further into the ground.”

Philomena Sulzen
Philomena Sulzen says she was fortunate to have housing while she waited for military benefits to kick in and address her mental illness. She stressed that homelessness isn’t a choice for some people. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Philomena Sulzen, who identified herself as a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and recipient of the Kansas welfare system, said the bill is a simplistic approach to a complex situation.

Sulzen said she was blessed to have stable housing while waiting for V.A. benefits to kick in for her mental illness.

“I just want to say it’s not a choice sometimes,” Sulzen said. “Please, please look at these people and know that we know, love and serve them. Get to know them. Trust the experts. Get the data from Kansans, and Kansas homeless communities, and let that knowledge lead you to love and serve even the very least of us.”

Advocates who work in the Kansas City area said they already have seen negative effects caused by the law on the Missouri side. Missouri adopted the Cicero Institute’s proposal last year, and it took effect Jan. 1.

Rob Santel, program director for Cross-Lines Community Outreach in Kansas City, Kansas, said the organization has partnered with police and others to provide meals, housing and behavioral health services. The organization was founded by a group of pastors and churches, he said, who believe “Jesus teaches us to love those who hit the jackpot in life, those who didn’t, and those who never will.”

Santel told lawmakers to let experts do their job and beware of snake oil salesmen.

“There are some consultants who make far-fetched claims, use questionable methods and frankly, make data up,” Santel said.

Rachel Russell
Rachel Russell tells lawmakers she appears before them as a Black woman, asking them not to pass harmful legislation “for the sake of my children, people that look like me, and those who are homeless in Kansas.” (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rachel Russell, director of community engagement at Cross-Lines, told lawmakers she wasn’t standing before them with her professional title, but as the person she wakes up as every morning — a Black woman and the mother of three beautiful Black children.

Black people make up 7.6% of the state’s population but 24% of the homeless population, she said.

“The racism embedded in this very fabric of this country has been critical to an intersectional examination of race and homelessness,” Russell said. “Structural racism props systems that perpetuate racial inequity, and reproduce racial discrimination.”

Black people have faced limited economic opportunities compounded by mass incarceration, barriers to education and generational poverty, she said. The foster care, health care, employment and homeless systems have all reinforced inequality.

The proposed legislation would undermine efforts by service providers who are working together to build racial equality.

“This is why I’m asking you to remove this item from consideration for the sake of my children, people that look like me and those who are homeless in Kansas,” Russell said.

Rep. Timothy Johnson, R-Basehor, drew a distinction between the testimony by Glock and testimony from those associated with Cross-Lines. The Cross-Lines testimony was accurate, he said.

“I will be in strong opposition to this bill for my people,” Johnson said near the end of the hearing, before getting up and walking out of the room.

Crowd listens to testimony
A crowd of homeless advocates and experts listen to testimony during a packed hearing March 2, 2023. (Sherman Smith/Kansas Reflector)

Rep. Heather Meyer, D-Overland Park, said she has worked with the homeless population for 15 years.

“While I have not talked about this publicly before, there was a moment in my life where I was homeless as well,” Meyer said. “So I deeply understand this issue.”

She added: “I do not appreciate the fact that there is misinformation being provided by a proponent of this.”

Awerkamp, the committee chairman, raised a concern about continually providing homes to serve a homeless population that continually grows. At what point, he wondered, will it stop?

“Maybe people tend to take the opportunity if it presents itself, as opposed to, maybe, stop the welfare to where they would have to go back home or seek help or go out and become self-sustaining,” Awerkamp said.

Awerkamp is a member of the Society of St. Pius X, a breakaway sect of the Catholic Church. In the brief interview as he exited the hearing room, Awerkamp hesitated to say what his religious teachings tell him to do on the topic of homelessness.

“We always help those in need,” Awerkamp said. “It’s important to help those in need.”

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Sherman Smith
Sherman Smith

Sherman Smith is the editor in chief of Kansas Reflector. He writes about things that powerful people don't want you to know. A two-time Kansas Press Association journalist of the year, his award-winning reporting includes stories about education, technology, foster care, voting, COVID-19, sex abuse, and access to reproductive health care. Before founding Kansas Reflector in 2020, he spent 16 years at the Topeka Capital-Journal. He graduated from Emporia State University in 2004, back when the school still valued English and journalism. He was raised in the country at the end of a dead end road in Lyon County.