The river access at the Vo-Tech Road Bridge was addressed during the St. Francois County Commission meeting Tuesday morning at the courthouse annex.
Highway Superintendent Clay Copeland spoke to the commission about having signs put up at the river access to address the past problem of homeless living under the bridge and creating problems for the public.
“Approximately a year or so ago, there were some people that were camped and living underneath the Vo-Tech Bridge just north of Desloge,” he said. “There were some issues with trash and some problems and they were forced to leave.”
Copeland noted that about a month ago, the problem returned with more homeless camping out beneath the bridge, which is maintained by the county. The property is also owned by the county.
“These people that were living under the bridge camped out there permanently,” he said. “Their numbers continued to grow, their dwellings continued to grow, and I believe a week ago last Sunday, there was a child missing from the group. Fire, EMS and sheriff’s department was involved in trying to [find the child]. The child had floated off and they didn’t miss him for quite a while. The child was found, but it was deemed a danger to those who were living there, and the law enforcement forced the people to leave.”
According to Copeland, both times that the crowd was cleared, his department had to clean up a large amount of trash that was left behind. This time they also had to block off a vehicle entrance that had been created. He noted problems the neighbors and local businesses were having with the situation.
“The neighbor that owns the land between Vo-Tech Road and the highway called our department and expressed his concern that some things were getting broken into and some things were getting stolen,” he said. “Trash was getting scattered.
“They’re gone now, it’s all cleaned up and done. I believe it is the desire of law enforcement that there be some type of ordinance or rule, not to allow overnight camping, littering and motorized vehicles.”
Copeland, along with the sheriff’s department, asked the commission to possibly enact an ordinance to prevent further homeless living at the location.
“It’s not something for Road and Bridge to address, it’s something for the commission to decide,” he said. “Road and Bridge will work with any kind of signage that we would need to do there.”
All the officials in the meeting agreed that they had no interest in preventing fishing and floating access to the river and even overnight camping at the access.
Sheriff Dan Bullock added, “We do not want to restrict people from fishing or maybe camping a night or two, but put a limit on it where people can’t move in there permanently. We’ve had numerous complaints, but we are very limited on what kind of authority we have down there, we would ask the commission to seek some legal advice on what we could do to stop this and give it some teeth. We run a pretty good bluff on them this last time.”
Presiding Commissioner Harold Gallaher asked the sheriff, “So you’re saying you can’t enforce the law if you don’t have the law?”
Bullock agreed, and added, “It started out with a couple, then they added tents, it was like they were building a commune down there, there were more tents and bigger tents, more vehicles.”
Associate Commissioner Patrick Mullins explained that the commission has 12 free hours of legal counseling every month and thought it should be used for this concern.
County Clerk Kevin Engler asked Copeland what the homeless were using for a sewer.
Copeland said they were using the ground in the area.
Engler continued, “I can tell you that [the Missouri Department of Natural Resources] would have a problem with that. You’ve got several problems there. Most of our people in this county have access if you’re homeless to services to get you someplace to live and a safe environment. It’s not like the county is not being charitable on it, but it’s just not acceptable to have no sewer right next to a river.”
Bullock noted after talking to legal counsel that the prosecuting attorney should be asked about what her office would do about filing charges in the future if an ordinance was enacted.
Gallaher noted that they would probably both get the same email.