The City of Ringgold in northwest Georgia has enacted an emergency ordinance to address sex offenders living under a bridge in the community.
The council adopted an “urban camping” ordinance Monday night which, according to The Times Free Press, bans “tents, “other temporary structures,” clothes, sleeping bags, cookware or luggage from public property.” The ordinance deals with homelessness generally, but is directed at those with criminal pasts.
Councilman Larry Black brought the idea forward after he learned that five men living under a bridge were sex offenders recently released from prison.”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’s quoted saying in the paper. A citizen was quoted voicing concerns over fishing safety near the bridge with the homeless using the restroom in such close proximity.
The new ordinance comes with a written warning to vacate within 24 hours and is then followed by tickets with $1,000 fines, 60 days in jail, and orders for community service.
Before we go any further, let’s first be clear that 99.9% of people who are homeless cannot afford to pay a $1,000 fine and many homeless people would prefer to spend a night in jail, especially as the winter months approach.
Now, to the merits of the ordinance….
The emergency ordinance was put in place to allow the council time to properly advertise and pass a more permanent ordinance. As an advocate for transparency and accountability in government, I can’t say that I’m a fan of this practice. Usually, emergency ordinances are reserved for natural disasters or extenuating circumstances of a manmade disaster. Five men under a bridge is neither an emergency nor a disaster, and it isn’t something that can’t wait 30 days to be done correctly. But there is more substance to discuss than the ‘how.’
Why are these men living under a bridge?
Arguably, it is because laws on the books restrict where sex offenders can live and a criminal background that can often be a hurdle for employment.
This is a conversation that partially reared its ugly head when reports of cities and counties requiring sex offenders to report to a secure location on Halloween came to light. “What to do” with sex offenders is understandably an emotional topic, and while there are a number of people who would love to see those who commit sexual offenses be locked away forever, our current system doesn’t allow for that. So as long as these offenders are being released into society, we have to discuss what to do with them.
Since 2008, state law has prohibited convicted sex offenders from working or living within 1,000 feet of a church, school, park, or other place where children gather. It doesn’t seem outrageous until you consider places like Catoosa County where only two apartment complexes meet the standard. In metro areas, more housing is available, but if you concentrate so many offenders to metro areas, you’ll eventually run into the same problem — not enough housing.
Whether you are talking about a metro area or a rural area, not enough housing will always lead to homelessness. Find me a community where there isn’t homelessness, while we’re on the topic.
So, back to the ordinance.
Do we want these convicts living under a bridge or do we want them gainfully employed somewhere and contributing to society? Do we want them focused on rebuilding and re-entering regular life or do we want them bored, living outdoors, and willing to do whatever it takes to survive? Is the end goal to eradicate sex offenders from a city, or county, or state as a whole? Does anyone think that’s financially or practically possible, short of literally rounding them up and taking them elsewhere?
When we are talking about issues as serious as this, we can’t talk in wide platitudes of what should happen in a perfect world or if you were ruling on the bench. We have to talk about practicality of what makes sense and what can actually be enforced. Does this ordinance meet that threshold?
And just like every other law, this one has unintended consequences.
The city is criminalizing homelessness. The wide net will capture those who aren’t sex offenders, or even convicts at all, and put them in a position to have a criminal background when they otherwise would not. With regard to the homeless who don’t have a criminal past — is the goal to tell them to pull themselves up by their bootstraps and get back on their feet as long as they do it somewhere else?
By criminalizing homelessness, those who are out on parole or probation will be reincarcerated if they are arrested. If that is the end goal, the City of Ringgold should just acknowledge that the method is simply to make an offender ‘someone else’s problem.’
Another thing to consider is whether or not something like this can hold up in court. The same ordinance passed in Grants Pass, Oregon as is working its way through the courts right now under constitutional right violations – specifically the 8th and 14th Amendments. In September, a federal court of appeals ruled that the Constitution forbids cities from prosecuting homeless persons for sleeping in public places when they have no alternative.
I won’t claim to know the proximity of this bridge in Ringgold to children and I won’t even claim to have all the answers. But I can assert that this type of ordinance is NOT the answer. One of the men under the bridge has reportedly lived there for decades, without incident. Pretending to be ‘tough on crime,’ pro-children, and anti-sex offender when you’re really just ‘pro-cycle of poverty’ is disingenuous, especially when courts have already ruled on the matter.
The City of Ringgold doesn’t know what the answer is, either. As evidenced by those voicing concerns over the ability to track homeless sex offenders, the cleanliness of fishing sources, the dangers of cooking under a bridge, and any of the other reasons mustered to try to tip the scales of public opinion to fear, it appears that council members and the community in Ringgold may not even know the question.