Every speaker at city council voices outrage Tuesday at a proposal by Mayor Andy Berke’s police department to outlaw the soliciting of alms in Chattanooga.
A host of residents call Chief David Roddy’s plea for sweeping arrest powers inhuman, anti-Christian, “barbaric” and not in keeping with the spirit of goodwill among the people in Chattanooga.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
Says Emma Wagner, a legal studies student and single mom: “Just three years ago, to feed my child, to buy the medication I need desperately, to put gas in my car, to meet with my domestic violence victim advocate, I had to panhandle. *** Do I look dangerous? Do I look like I would hurt anybody?”
Regular citizens and clergypeople repeatedly evoke God’s name and law as they denounce the begging measure as deserving of the same fire and brimstone that ruined Sodom and Gomorrah in Genesis 19.
The speakers include a cloaked woman in an electric wheelchair, Joan-Marie Lawrence; a Chatt State 4.0 student who says, “I don’t look like someone who has ever been homeless”; a retired computer programmer with a hat bespangled with “Impeach Trump” buttons; clergy from the left wing of the Christian church; and common people such as pizza delivery man Charles Reese.
“I want this council to know I’ve never been threatened by a panhandler, though they have approached me many times,” says Mr. Reese. “Please look in your hearts, and don’t judge these people, but help them” by opening houses abandoned by owners escaping the claws of property tax liens.
Miss Lawrence says she holds fundraisers to run a wheelchair accessible minivan. Many people have to struggle to find food, she declares. “Any ordinance that fines people who can’t afford a $2 burger is, quite frankly, ridiculous. There has to be a better way” for the city to help these people rather than punish would cops know by looks who is homeless and panhandling — and who isn’t? Giving police jurisdiction over sifting panhandlers from other poor is “a really bad idea.”
Dr. Jeannie Hacker-Cerulean, a UTC speech professor, introduces the idea of that artists and creative people face injury in Messrs. Berke’s and Roddy’s advancing of copdom. Many artists “dress from Goodwill” outlets and may appear shabby or irregular, she says, potential targets in their personal interactions with sidewalk listeners and coin-tossers. People who busk on the street and “knowledge workers” would be hurt by a ban on panhandling, a deed similar to “passing the plate on Sunday morning.”
Jeff Melville of St. Elmo calls chief Roddy’s “a barbaric proposal,” and says he and his fellow speakers will oppose it fiercely if not killed as a trial balloon tonight.
‘Huge step backward’
A noted local activist, Michael Gilliland, 26, a Pentecostalist minister’s son turned Marxist, says he uses bike and sneaker rubber to get about the city as a restaurant worker. He says he meets “dozens and dozens of people on the street” asking for help. Some are in the throes of personal crises, and he says does not feel threatened, and even if he did he would refuse to call a cop for help.
“This is a huge step backward,” Mr. Gilliland warns.
Joel Willis, 32, who identifies as a man, stirs up stats about $15,000 wages and the city’s below-national average median income. “If you don’t have $2 for a burger, you certainly don’t have $50 for a citation.” He ridicules the figure given a week before by Chief Roddy, that 94 percent of funds donated to panhandlers is lost to drugs and alcohol.
Mr. Willis says homeless people often lack family, so city council should consider itself a substitute for these people, do nothing to injure them and find positive way to help them (maybe more socialism than already exists in the River City).
The Rev. Alaina Cobb, 31, minister at Mercy Junction Justice & Peace Center, cites the prophet Ezekiel in his 16th chapter, 49th verse. “Look, this was the iniquity of your sister Sodom: She and her daughter had pride, fullness of food, and abundance of idleness; neither did she strengthen the hand of the poor and needy.”
“To even consider criminalizing asking other people for help in the streets you have to embrace frankly a comedic view of evil, and I do mean evil.” The measure that is yet to be introduced by a council member is a “similar territory” to the turning of children’s corpses into gloves, Rev. Cobb says. Fining the poor and then jailing later them for not being able to pay is wrong.
“This is intended to imprison those who don’t live on a mountain or a ridge. It will keep the poorest among us in their place.” Such ordinance should prompt Chattanooga to adopt the name of a city upon which Lot’s eye fell from across the plain of Jordan.
Also making an brief word against the proposal is “Dr. J.” Loundmonclay, a mental health expert who says the bill focuses on symptoms of poverty, not causes.
‘My whole body hurts when I stand on the corner’
Perhaps the most affecting presentation is the night’s first, that of Regina Ledford of 911 S. Holly Street. To speak publicly is emotionally difficult; she breathes heavily into the microphone. “Sometimes I panhandle, sometimes I am embarrassed to go out panhandling. I’m embarrassed to be here talking to ya’ll about it. I freeze *** when I stand at the corner. My whole body hurts when I stand at the corner. The reason I do that is that I don’t have enough money to pay my bills to get food for myself and my animals. I only get $54 in food stamps a month.”
Among the dozen or so opponents of the Roddy scheme, only one comes close to speaking supportively of police, a man who says it’s easy to make police “an abstract idea.” But it is easier to turn poor people into abstractions and treat them inhumanely.
A businesswoman tells city council that Chattanoogans are protected from aggressive panhandling by Tenn. Code Ann. 39-17-313, and that if any person on the street crosses the line to assault, battery or harassment, police can apply that law after witnessing the act or receiving a complaint. “We do not need additional laws on the books on this issue; what we need is compassion. **What we need to say is that it’s OK to give money to people; they need it.”