Correction: A previous version of this story said the Ringgold city council will read its urban camping ordinance at its Nov. 26 meeting. The council canceled that meeting. They will next meet Dec. 10.
"We need to give them the opportunity to show that they learned from their mistakes, to prove that they're willing to step up and make positive changes," Georgia Department of Community Supervision Officer Keith Green said during a Thursday forum on homelessness at First Baptist Church of Ringgold. " If not, they're going to be homeless. They're going to be wherever they can be and be out of the elements as much as possible."
On Monday, the city council unanimously passed an emergency urban camping ordinance, with the aim of moving the group of sex offenders out from under a bridge near South Chickamauga Creek and Highway 41. Some neighbors urged the council to take action, arguing they feel unsafe with their children playing in the yard nearby. Specifically, the ordinance bans tents, sleeping bags, book bags and other personal belongings from being on county property for extended periods of time. The police can arrest any violators.
Before the ordinance passed, as Councilman Larry Black and neighbors called for the ban, a group of local pastors organized Thursday's forum. They hoped to come up with plans to reduce homelessness, particularly among sex offenders.
According to the Department of Community Supervision, 23 sex offenders released from prison this year came to Catoosa County. Of those, nine were immediately homeless.
Bo Payton, coordinating chief of the DCS office that oversees Catoosa, Chattooga, Dade and Walker counties, said there are no homeless shelters in the area that can accept sex offenders, due to state restrictions on where the offenders can live.
Last week, four men lived under the bridge. Two of them told the Times Free Press that Green, their supervision officer, told them to go there after they were released from prison. As sex offenders, they have to register an address with the local sheriff's office. The bridge was a location far enough away from a church or school to comply with state law.
The LaFayette Area Correction Task Force, a group that works to find housing for recently released inmates, donated money to pay for some of the men to temporarily move into apartments. As of Thursday afternoon, only one man was still under the bridge: Robert Murphy, who pleaded guilty in April 2015 to conspiracy to commit computer pornography.
Murphy told the Times Free Press he received a written warning from a Ringgold police officer on Wednesday. If he wasn't out by the end of Thursday, he believed he was going back to jail. Murphy said he used to have a home in Cleveland, Tennessee, but a bank foreclosed on it as he sat in jail for more than two years awaiting trial.
"I'm going to go to jail for nothing," he said. "For trying to survive."
Another man who was living under the bridge, Adam Woody, who was convicted in 2004 of statutory rape, told the Times Free Press earlier this week that he has moved to an apartment in town. A local group that tries to find housing for recently released inmates donated money for a week's rent. But Woody said he will need to make $140 a week to stay there, something he isn't sure he can pull off.
At Thursday's forum, Ringgold police administrative coordinator Wayne Thaxton urged those in attendance to donate money to find Murphy a temporary home. Some donated enough money to house him at a local motel for two weeks.
"When we displace somebody based upon a legal process, I can't place them somewhere," Thaxton said. " I don't want this to sound like some kind of a threat. My placement is to arrest them, and that's not necessarily where they need to be."
The Rev. Chris Bryant, pastor of Ringgold Methodist Church, said he did not know about the group under the bridge until Black's original proposal last month. If offenders had lived there, off and on, for years, he wondered why it has become an issue now.
"All too often," he said, "the decisions we make, if we make them too quickly, there are unintended consequences where we are trying to apply to a particular group, and it ends up affecting people we never intended to affect. I would urge caution and collegiality and compassion."
Said Cathy McMillon, a local resident who previously worked with homeless people in Texas: "If they're sex offenders, God's going to take care of them. That's not our place to make that judgment and do that. And the rest of those folks, I feel like those people who are not part of that group, they're suffering because of that. We're putting them all in that same group. That's not right."
Councilman Terry Crawford defended the elected officials' actions during the forum. In addition to neighbors complaining about sex offenders living down the street, Crawford was concerned about a gas line that runs under the bridge. Some men living there cooked on a grill. If the line leaked, Crawford said, the bridge could explode.
"I am not to the point that I'm not compassionate to anybody," he said. "But we have had multiple problems, multiple issues sat right here in front of us that we had to deal with. And that's why I was elected, why the rest of the guys was elected, is to deal with issues like this. We feel like, on our side, we've gone about as far as we can go there. That's why you're here today. Where we have to stop, y'all can pick up and go."
Some pastors discussed forming a task force, trying to come up with solutions.
Since Black first proposed the ordinance, most neighbors spoke out in favor of his proposal. Some were upset that DCS officers did not warn them about the sex offenders under the bridge, though advocates for the group point to studies that show relatively low recidivism among sex offenders. A 2003 U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics report found that, of 10,000 sex offenders analyzed, 4.6 percent had previously been convicted of a sex crime against a child.
The emergency ordinance passed Monday will last only 30 days. But the council is working on a long-term version, which requires two public readings. The elected officials held a special called meeting after the forum Thursday, to read the ordinance twice.
Councilwoman Sara Clark expressed concern after the forum, wondering if this law will apply to homeless teenagers.
"We're about to arrest children," she said. "Charge them with misdemeanors."
"I don't think there were any comments about arresting children that I remember," Black said.
"Homeless teenagers," Clark said. "Tell me where they fall. Tell me where they fall, Larry. If they fall under this ordinance, we will have to charge them with something."
Black said this debate was "outside the scope" of the purpose of Thursday's meeting. But Holly Scott, who lives down the street from the bridge and supports the ordinance, said local law enforcement will refer the underage homeless people to the Department of Family and Community Supervision rather than arrest them.
The council will read the ordinance again during its next meeting, Dec. 10.
Contact staff writer Tyler Jett at 423-757-6476 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @LetsJett.