A proposal to ban the begging of alms in Chattanooga takes heavy fire at the city council Tuesday among critics of the measure who say it makes the city ungodly and uncharitable.
But the nine pages of police-enforceable language — which makes a first public appearance at the end of the city council meeting — receives support from several merchants who say beggars intimidate customers and hurt their business.
By David Tulis / 92.7 NoogaRadio
“The point is not to try to hurt homeless people,” says William Green of G’s Detroit Sausages on 611 E. M.L. King Blvd. “I give homeless people food all the time. I’d rather you come to me as the business owner. Because the customer comes to support my business. If people come and ask them for money, that deters them from coming.”
Erskine Oglesby’s proposed ordinance comes attached with 22 pages of colorful excerpts from police reports suggesting the extent of the ill behavior among panhandlers over a three-year period.
“It’s something that our constituents *** have a great concern about,” Mr. Oglesby says afterwards. “Originally it was just downtown around the aquarium, so now it’s going to expand citywide.” Asked how he could deny allegations of the ordinance being ungodly, he says, “It’s not a question of denying it, it just focuses on aggressive panhandling, and it’s those people who are in people’s face, following them around, y’know, they’re literally harassing people for money.
“We understand that there are a group of citizens who rely on public support, if you will, and they can continue to do pretty much what they need to do, we understand that. But the focus is on those who are aggressively approaching citizens for monies or food or whatever.”
Mr. Oglesby appears willing to retreat from the ordinance if homeless people end up getting more support after the debate is over. “It started a conversation about how we can better serve those populations of homelessness,” he says in an interview. “Have we not moved forward with discussions about this ordinance, we wouldn’t be having these discussions. I believe it is going to lead to more services and improved services and other opportunities to help the homeless.”
Anthony Byrd, council member, is critical of expanded police powers but is willing to believe that perfection and balance is reachable by legislation.
“I think it is sad that we are not loving on each other enough. Like the young gentleman said, that’s one of Martin Luther King’s speeches, as far as to love, and I do think we need to do that. It needs to go both ways. The community and the government have to show love, but the people that are in lesser or in uncomfortable situations, they need to show love as well, and I understand we have to find balance.
“That’s why we have checks and balances,” Mr. Byrd says. “So, this ordinance that came out, is it perfect? Is this right? I don’t think so. Jesus Christ is perfect, but this is not. At some point in time we have to figure out how to get as perfect as possible to help the 200,000 people that live in the city of Chattanooga and make it so that everyone is comfortable.”
Mr. Green, the sausage restaurateur, seems uneasy with the ordinance, and proposes a program by which homeless people could dip hourly onto a city payroll and clean up grubby areas near where the homeless may be staying. “Instead of asking [for money], ask what you can do to earn some money, and you may get a better response. So it’s not about nobody trying to put you out, treat you [badly],” he tells the council.
In an interview, Mr. Green expresses divided sentiments but wants leverage against blustery street people. “We don’t want to lock them up. But we want them to understand when they are aggressive to our customers, that runs the customers away. I try do everything I can to feed the homeless and you have some who want to do something, and you have also a lot of them who just want to get a beer. It’s a Catch 22. *** I’ve never turned one away. And then sometimes you get one who comes back and back to get fed. I don’t mind helping anybody. But the aggressive panhandling is what I don’t want. Because some people can be frightened. Women, the guy comes out and the guy goes, ‘Give me a dollar.’ And if they don’t give him a dollar, some of ‘em will cuss them out.”
The ordinance itself faces the problem of complexity, with each provision seeming to delve more amply with the sometimes startling encounters residents may have with begging passers-on along the sidewalk. The more byways and back alleys exist in the ordinance, the harder it is for any poor individual, quasi-literate or ill-informed of the local legal landscape, to comply with the rules.
But critics at the city council microphone are stuck on less philosophical concerns.
“It’s a travesty to criminalize someone because they are poor,” says Jessica Christie, who takes seven prescriptions and finds charity clinics ill-stocked to help. “I was victimized by domestic violence, and that’s what put me out on the street. *** I had my son with me and we slept on bus benches because we were running from some danger, and I panhandled in order to have sleeping blankets and sleeping bags for me and my son to sleep with.”
Jessica Christie and people from Mercy Junction Peace & Justice Center, representing the left wing of Christianity, are present a second time to oppose the ban.
“We spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on automatic weapons ammunition and we can’t fix the housing crisis?” demands Joel Willis. Several of the opponents of the measure endorse broader city-level socialism to assist the needy.
‘Tell them to back off; that’s really all it takes’
One speaker who ran a business says business people and marks of panhandlers are able to handle the city’s 20 or 30 aggressive comers-on on their own. “Just tell them, don’t do that, don’t behave that way. To do anything else is to turn it into a class war *** on our most vulnerable citizens,” the Atlanta native said. “If they assault someone, arrest them for assault. But not for panhandling. There are ready laws in place that cover how these people behave. We don’t need any new ones. *** Tell them to back off; that’s really all it takes.”