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A new ordinance aimed to crack down on panhandling citywide passed it’s first reading Tuesday night.
Chattanooga City Council members voted 7 to 1.
Chairman Jerry Mitchell was the first to voice his opinion. He said he respects the work other council members put into the ordinance, but voted no. Councilwoman Demetrus Coonrod made it clear she didn’t vote at all.
“If our mayor’s mission is not to create barriers for people then we have to start looking at other options where we can help people begin to thrive,” said Coonrod.
After her peers voted, Coonrod held up this piece of paper that read “will work for food.” She says she’s personally one paycheck away from putting the piece of paper to use.
“Everybody is a paycheck away like anything can happen that can cause us to be out on the street. A lot of times I think that we don’t think about that.”
The new ordinance would stretch citywide and would prevent soliciting within 20 feet of ATM and open sidewalk restaurants. Highways, entry and exit ramps, traffic medians and bridges would also be off limits.
Those who support the measure say the goal is to connect citizens in need with social services, but violators could be cited to court, where a judge could fine up to $50. Police could charge repeat violators under a state law that carries a 30-day jail sentence. The new ordinance is different from the current state law forbidding “aggressive” panhandling, which is begging in a way that is threatening, loud or frightening to targets, and which carries criminal penalties.
The focus is on panhandlers, but street performers like 10-year-old Abigail Snell would also be impacted. Snell plays the violin downtown to pay for her own music lessons.
“I won’t be able to have as much fun and share the music that I want to share,” said Snell. “I think it should be allowed for performers to busk on the streets.”
But council members say the ordinance doesn’t make it illegal to perform on city streets.
“The only issue that would come up if is the distance between entrances to a location if there is a request for money,” said Deputy City Attorney, Phil Noblett.
Council members have a final vote on the ordinance next week. If it passes, the ordinance will go into effect within two weeks.
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