Chattanooga coalition says new vandalism ordinance could target city's homeless

Staff file photo / Tents are seen at a homeless camp off of 11th Street on Wednesday, March 17, 2021, in Chattanooga, Tenn.

The Chattanooga City Council unanimously approved Tuesday an updated ordinance to crack down on vandalism, an action that one organization said will result in the criminalization of the city's homeless population.

Wendy Winters, executive director of the Chattanooga Regional Homeless Coalition, said at Tuesday night's council meeting that the council failed to consult with homeless organizations such as hers about the law that outlaws vandalism such as putting structures and fires on or under public bridges, culverts and city streets.

"The language is very broad," Winters said, adding she still understands the purpose of the ordinance. "It has me fearful how it might be enforced. It will be broad, and it will be used to criminalize homelessness."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga is considering a supervised homeless camp on 12th Street)

Councilman Isiah Hester, who lives in Washington Hills and chairs the council's public works committee, said council members consulted Sam Wolfe, the city's director of homelessness and supportive housing, who approved the updated ordinance.

But he admitted that members going forward need to do a better job of consulting with parties who work with those at risk of being affected by city legislation.

However, he said, the purpose of the updated ordinance is to protect the city's infrastructure, not target its homeless population.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga man saved from homelessness thanks to Neediest Cases Fund)

"I think the intent was not to punish the homeless community," Hester said. "It was to prevent any type of damage to bridges and all of that. It's not just homeless people who are vandalizing bridges. It isn't just the homeless who are being involved."

The ordinance comes as the winter season looms - a potentially deadly time for people experiencing homelessness.

While the city wouldn't penalize any individual breaking the ordinance, it would allow public works officials and police to relocate homeless individuals who are in violation.

A violation can occur in any area with signage by the public works department, said Councilman Anthony Byrd, who lives in Orchard Knob and chairs the council's public safety committee.

"It's cold outside. Do we want them sleeping outside? Do we want them sleeping under bridges?" Byrd said, adding what's most important is finding homeless individuals shelter and housing.

Winters also expressed concern earlier Tuesday with the city's plans to create a supervised homeless encampment on 12th Street near Peeples Street.

(READ MORE: Neediest Cases appeal raises nearly $80,000 for Chattanooga area residents in 2020)

Wolfe, who spoke to Times Free Press last month about the plan, said a supervised site would amount to a tent city that could curb crime in the area while providing access to restrooms and other local services.

Winters, though, said she was concerned the ordinance could allow the city to force homeless individuals into the encampment, making them relocate.

Wolfe has insisted the encampment would give more options to the homeless population, emphasizing access to housing and safer shelter are the most important aspects of helping people out of homelessness.

Last month, the city council unanimously approved a nearly $3 million purchase of a hotel on Lee Highway with plans to turn it into low-income housing.

The Airport Inn at 7725 Lee Highway, owned by Sunlight Inc., will be bought for an amount not to exceed $2.79 million, according to the resolution. The city will purchase the 74-room hotel with funds from the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.

About 350 people sleep on the streets of Chattanooga each night, Wolfe has said.

Contact Logan Hullinger at Follow him on Twitter @LoganHullinger.