Ringgold City Council passes emergency ordinance banning homelessness

From left are Councilman Larry Black, Councilwoman Sarah Clark and Mayor Nick Millwood discuss city business at a recent Council meeting inside Ringgold City Hall.

With an outcry from neighbors about recently released sex offenders living under a nearby bridge, the Ringgold City Council unanimously passed an emergency ordinance banning homelessness Monday night.

The council's "urban camping" ordinance bans tents, "other temporary structures," clothes, sleeping bags, cookware or luggage from public property. The police department will give violators a written warning, ordering them to leave within 24 hours. After that, officers can write tickets to the homeless, and a municipal court judge can fine them up to $1,000, send them to jail for up to 60 days or order them to perform community service.

Councilman Larry Black first pushed for the ban last month after neighbors complained about four or five men living under a bridge that crosses Highway 41 at South Chickamauga Creek. Black later learned the people were sex offenders.

"We have no way of knowing what that person is doing, as far as our safety concerns of our children, at 3, 4 o'clock in the morning, when we're very vulnerable," he said Monday night.

The emergency ordinance lasts 30 days. The council also will vote on a permanent ordinance, which requires public readings at two meetings. The elected officials will hold a special called meeting for the first public reading Thursday at 5:30 p.m. They then will read the ordinance again during their next scheduled meeting, Nov. 26.

Some of the people under the bridge have previously told the Times Free Press that their Georgia Department of Community Supervision officer told them to live there. The department has not publicly addressed the issue, previously telling the Times Free Press that discussing the practice would require speaking about individual cases.

But, a spokesman added, "sex offender laws' severe and inflexible proximity restrictions make it very challenging to find housing for sex offenders and there are significantly fewer resources, statewide, to help sex offenders overcome homelessness. The lack of housing options for homeless sex offenders is often exacerbated in rural areas."

In addition to the typical barriers to finding a job with a criminal history, offenders cannot work or live within 1,000 feet of a church, school or other place where children gather. That law applies to anyone convicted since 2008.

Some people under the bridge were convicted prior to the law taking effect. But last month, they still had trouble finding jobs or places to live.

James Waters, who was convicted of child molestation in 1998, said he preferred living outside under the bridge after a 20-year prison sentence. He did not immediately return a call seeking comment Tuesday.

The LaFayette Area Correctional Task Force, which meets monthly to discuss housing issues for recently released inmates, donated money to put three of the residents in local apartments. According to minutes from the group's meeting last Thursday, only two apartment complexes in Catoosa County are outside the 1,000-foot limits that apply to many sex offenders.

Adam Woody, who was convicted of statutory rape in 2004, said his DCS officer moved him to an apartment off Highway 41 last week, with the first week's rent covered. But he said he needs $140 a month to keep living there, and he doesn't have any good options. He has job interviews lined up Thursday and next Tuesday. But even if an employer hires him, he doesn't think he'll see any money for two weeks.

"In a few days," he said, "I'll be homeless again. ... You can try and try and try. But there's always something stopping you."

On Monday night, several residents who live on Old County Road, down the street from the bridge, complained about the homeless population. Specifically, they were mad that a DCS officer did not warn them about the people living around the corner.

"Finding out that the probation officers placed them there, as a resident, offends me more than anything I've ever heard in my life," said Stacey Banker. "I can't even imagine any kind of government that would allow and place sex offenders. If I were a convicted criminal and I were coming out of prison and I was counting on my probation officer to put me in a home, I would expect running water, electricity. I don't understand that concept at all, how that's even legal."

In response to neighbors' complaints, a DCS spokeswoman sent the Times Free Press a "frequently asked questions" form designed for Ringgold residents which includes a statement that the agency is not required to inform neighbors about a sex offender living nearby. DCS instead enforces the state law that requires sex offenders to register with the local sheriff's office.

Holly and Joel Scott said they felt unsafe living with their three children down the road. They now keep an eye on them playing outside, worried someone may attack them. The Scotts have considered moving, they said.

Jamison Braly worried about homeless people cooking under the bridge, where a gas line runs. A leak in the line, coupled with a fire, could cause an explosion. He also didn't trust the homeless to properly dispose of their waste.

"I have to wonder if I should be letting our children play in the creek as they once did," he said. "Where are these men dumping their urine and feces? Is it safe to fish in the creek? Is it safe to swim? Is it safe to even live near the creek?"

At 3 p.m. Thursday, a group of pastors will hold a forum at Ringgold First Baptist Church, located at 7611 Nashville St. They plan to share ideas for how to help the homeless population.

Members of the LaFayette Area Correctional Task Force plan to attend the forum. According to their meeting minutes from last week, DCS officer Keith Green tried to find travel trailers that they could use for the sex offenders, but utility connections were too expensive.

During Monday's meeting, Councilwoman Sara Clark told the residents they need to help find long-term solutions for homelessness in the area.

"There's nothing in this ordinance that reads 'criminal,'" she said. "There's only 'homeless' written in this ordinance. Go to the meeting on Thursday. Let's see if our community has a helping hand."

Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or tjett@timesfreepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.