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Chattanooga Police Chief David Roddy talks about a Hamilton Place mall shooting incident in this Feb. 26, 2018, file photo.

Virginia Ledford spoke quietly into the microphone in the Chattanooga City Council meeting Tuesday evening.

"Sometimes I panhandle," she said. "I'm embarrassed to stand here talking to y'all about it. I freeze, sometimes I burn up, standing at the corner. The reason I do that is because I don't have enough money to pay my bills and get food for myself and my animals.

"I only get $54 in food stamps a month," Ledford said, beginning to weep. "Please, don't stop the panhandling. Don't put people in jail for panhandling."

Ledford was among more than a dozen people who came to the council to protest plans to enact a citywide ordinance against "aggressive" panhandling. It allows police to issue $50 citations to beggars who block someone's path, touch or yell at them. It doesn't apply to people who merely ask for money without acting to stop or intimidate passersby.

The ordinance has been in place since 2002 in the downtown tourism and restaurant district, but police Chief David Roddy last week asked the council to extend it citywide. That would keep aggressive beggars from just relocating, he said, and would give his officers a reason to check them for warrants or to offer them services.

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The council is supposed to vote March 20, but the members were of different minds at Tuesday's strategic planning session. Supporters say it's one tool among many the city can use to find and help the vulnerable and stop predators. Opponents say people who have to beg for money won't be able to pay citations and could end up in jail just because they're poor.

The Mercy Center for Justice and Peace organized the opposition with Facebook posts and a petition. Comments ranged from common sense to caustic to over the top, and many speakers appeared to interpret the proposed ordinance as a total begging ban that would "criminalize poverty." Council members listened without comment.

Businesswoman Ginger Moss said she's had no trouble dealing with aggressive panhandlers.

"It's simply a matter of stepping out and saying, 'you must leave, you cannot behave this way.' It does not take an ordinance, it does not take a fine," Moss said.

Emma Wagner, a Chattanooga State student, said she panhandled three years ago, after escaping domestic violence, to pay for her seizure medicine and feed herself and her child.

"Chief Roddy said he knew what a panhandler looked like and they were dangerous, they would hurt people. Do I look dangerous? Do I look like I would hurt anybody?" Wagner asked.

Several ridiculed Roddy's statement to the council that 92 percent of money given to beggars goes for drugs, alcohol or prostitutes, noting that he didn't cite a source.

The chief's language "is inflammatory and further marginalizes those who are denied basic human rights such as housing and health care and who must beg in the streets for the basic necessities of survival," said Maddie Nix, a Mercy Junction elder. Nix said the proposed ordinance "is just another ploy to feed the bodies of poor people into the machine of mass incarceration."

Eighth-grade teacher Madeleine Dougherty said of her pupils at CGLA: "If my 13-year-old students can understand that putting somebody in jail doesn't fix their problems, that fining them for being poor doesn't fix their problems, it is baffling, it is absolutely baffling to me, that any adult that has been voted into office or any adult who claims to protect and serve this city would not understand that exact same thing."

The Rev. Alaina Cobb, of Mercy Junction, reached for the heights.

"To even consider criminalizing asking for help on the street, you have to embrace a frankly comedic grade of evil. And I do mean evil. I mean, this isn't 'A Modest Proposal' [the Jonathan Swift satire]. You haven't proposed to skin poor babies to make gloves, but this is similar territory.

"... If you're willing to stride boldly into 'Let's not help the poor, let's fine them and then, inevitably, jail them for not paying those fines,' then you're not so much plotting evil as dancing around in it and singing a jaunty tune," Cobb said.

She cited Ezekiel 16:49: "'This was the guilt of your sister, Sodom. She and her daughters had pride, excess of food and prosperity but did not aid the poor or the needy.'

"So if you're considering this as a viable ordinance, I humbly suggest we just change the name of this city to Sodom, or Gomorrah. Either works."

Contact staff writer Judy Walton at jwalton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6416.

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