Chattanooga City Council members, getting their first glimpse Tuesday of a proposed citywide ordinance regulating panhandling, also got a look at how widespread panhandling is.
Language in the proposed ordinance stated that Chattanooga police received 457 panhandling-related calls between Jan. 1, 2015, and March 14 of this year.
"Those incidents involved trespassing, drug violations, disorderly conduct, drunkenness, assaults, suicide attempts," the ordinance states.
Attached was a 22-page summary of the calls: A man who refused to leave the Kanku's on Glenwood Drive and threatened to shoot a police officer; a woman with two children begging in a church parking lot on Ashland Terrace; a man begging from motorists fueling their cars at the Speedway on Lee Highway; a woman who called police after a man followed her from her car to her job and knocked repeatedly on her door.
None of the incidents appeared to surprise council members, who decided to update the city's limited panhandling ordinance last year because they were inundated with complaints from frightened and upset constituents.
They hope that what the city attorney's office has come up with will extend the existing ordinance against "aggressive" panhandling in the downtown tourism area — blocking, touching, threatening or yelling — citywide.
The ordinance attempts 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," according to the draft copy.
It's a touchy subject, which some people equate to "criminalizing poverty."
The Mercy Junction Justice and Peace Center at St. Andrews last week organized a group who spoke passionately to council members about helping, rather than punishing, the poor who beg on the street. They said giving $50 tickets to people begging for money was a waste of time because the people cited have no way to pay.
Some of the same group were at Tuesday night's council voting session, repeating their pleas.
Jessica Christie said she has been homeless for two years and had to panhandle last week for $20 to buy her medicine.
"If I can't afford $20 for medicine, how can I pay a fine?" she asked.
Landon Howard said, "We don't need new laws, we need social workers and houses for folks to go live in."
But William Green, who owns a business on M.L. King boulevard, said his customers get scared away when panhandlers confront them, and that hurts his business. He suggested people try to work with the city or local businesses to earn money instead of begging for it.
"People are down there trying to make a living," Green said.
Some council members said some of the opponents misunderstood the proposed ordinance, which restricts only aggressive behavior and is punishable only by a $50 citation. There is a separate state law that makes aggressive panhandling a Class C misdemeanor, with a 30-day jail sentence on first offense.
Councilwoman Carol Berz, who is heading up the ordinance revision, said too many people conflate homelessness, poverty and panhandling, "and it's not the same."
The ordinance is only one part of a larger goal of finding and helping the poor by connecting them with health care, housing and social services, she said.
Phil Noblett, in the city attorney's office, pointed out that of the 457 panhandling calls, 174 were logged as "miscellaneous and 187 as "other," meaning referrals for help and social services rather than citations.
The city attorney's office will review the language in the ordinance and it's expected to appear on the April 3 agenda for first reading.
Contact staff writer Judy Walton at email@example.com or 423-757-6416.