After months of work and weeks of public input, a controversial ordinance regulating panhandling is set for first reading Tuesday in the Chattanooga City Council.
Council members Carol Berz and Erskine Oglesby Jr. have spearheaded the effort after hearing a growing number of constituent complaints about unruly beggars.
Police records show 457 panhandling calls throughout the city between Jan. 1, 2015, and March 14, 2018, involving trespassing, drug violations, disorderly conduct, drunkenness, assaults and suicide attempts. Of those, 361 resulted in contacts for social services, according to police.
Several council members hope the revised ordinance, if passed, will help protect people who are asked on the streets for money as well as those who are doing the asking, giving police a tool to connect panhandlers with social services.
"That's one of the concerns: How do you get those folks the help they need?" Deputy City Attorney Phil Noblett told council members last week.
The preamble states the ordinance aims "to recognize free speech rights for all citizens while at the same time protecting the coexistent rights for all citizens to enjoy safe and convenient travel in public spaces free from intimidating conduct, threats, and harassment that stem from certain types of abusive solicitation, or that may give rise to interference with other's activities if they occur in particular settings and contexts."
So the ordinance acknowledges people's First Amendment right to ask for money, but not everywhere, all the time or in a way that's threatening or intimidating.
It bars "aggressive" panhandling in the city, and any kind of panhandling in places of "personal privacy" or "heightened safety concerns." No solicitations would be allowed within 20 feet of an ATM machine or a bank with an ATM, or near an open sidewalk cafe unless the owner permits.
None would be allowed either on high-speed or limited-access highways, entry and exit ramps, traffic medians or routes, including bridges where the posted speed limit is above 35 mph.
Police could cite panhandlers who break the rules to court, where a judge could impose a fine of up to $50. Repeat violators could be targeted with injunctions, or police could charge aggressive beggars under a state law that carries a 30-day jail sentence.
Councilman Anthony Byrd said last week he's concerned that the ordinance pack enough punch to get panhandlers who really need social services before a judge, who could order them to get help.
But local resident Joel Willis, who has spoken against the ordinance at council meetings, told the Times Free Press in an email the council is focusing more on "citizens and business owners," and "nothing about their concerns indicates they want more leniency for people they see as a nuisance."
Willis said "misjudgment of what 'aggressive' looks like [can lead to] life altering consequences for someone who is most likely already having trouble taking care of themselves. Even if charges are ultimately dismissed that person still has to pay fees for their time in jail. If they have a job they may lose it. What about their families? Their children? These are citizens with everyday concerns like the rest of us.
"... There is already an option to be lenient and there is already an option by individual officers to arrest/ticket someone or not. What, then, is the point of this ordinance?" Willis asked.
The council voting session begins at 6 p.m. at 1000 Lindsay St.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6416.