It’s probably not often that a group of people ranging from pastors to city and county government, law enforcement, judges, social services, citizens and the homeless gather in one location to try to understand and solve a serious problem together. That’s what happened at Ringgold Baptist Church the cold afternoon of Thursday, Nov. 15.
The city of Ringgold has been grappling with the issue of several homeless men living under a bridge. Residents have expressed concerns ranging from the safety of children to problems for nearby businesses, litter and the integrity of the bridge structure because fires were being built under it.
Ringgold City Council passed an “emergency urban camping ordi-nance” at its Nov. 12 meeting that resulted in deadlines for those living under the bridge to find other accommodations.
By the time of the community gathering of dozens of people at Ringgold Baptist, only one man remained a resident under the bridge. The group ended up addressing that immediate need and also dis-cussed the greater problem of people returning to society from prison without a social safety net, without financial resources and with a prison record that limits their ability to find housing or work.
A particular problem that was discussed was homeless people who have been sex offenders and are listed on the sex offender registry.
Numerous people took to the microphone to explain the complications of a sex-offender background. Representatives from the Georgia Department of Community Supervision (DCS) spoke and handed out an information sheet that offered statistics and tried to clarify some misunderstandings.
The DCS sheet notes that the “number of supervised sex offenders re-leased from prison to reside in Catoosa County this year has been 23.” Nine of those were “immediately homeless after release.”
The sheet goes on to say that 88 sex offenders currently live in Catoosa County, two of whom are homeless. Further, says the info sheet, DCS District 7, which includes Catoosa and 13 other counties, has the highest number of supervised sex offenders of all DCS districts in the state, but not a single shelter to help them even on an emergency basis.
DCS’s info sheet corrects a few misunderstandings. It says that DCS is not required to warn neighbors of a sex offender living within a certain distance of them, but that the sex offender registry can be accessed by the public. DCS says its officers have not brought sex offenders to Ringgold to live under the bridge. And finally, DCS says it does help supervised individuals find housing, although it is not required to do so.
Numerous people at the meeting spoke passionately about helping the homeless. Many had experience helping the homeless and shared those experiences.
“People with criminal backgrounds will get out of prison and come back into society,” said one person. “It would be safer and healthier for them and everyone else if they had a place to go.”
Rev. Bob Borger, assistant pastor of Highlands Presbyterian Church in Lafayette, shared the story of a man his church helped. “He was in prison for 15 years and didn’t have a single visitor that whole time.” Borger said his church invested in the man, who has become a con-tributing member of society who now helps others.
A local resident shared the story of his grandson who was convicted of statutory rape when he was 17 years old. The girl he was involved with was 15 and the grandfather said the relationship was consensual. The boy’s family spent $25,000 to keep him out of jail but, says the grandfa-ther, “he had that sex offender tag that made it hard for him to find work or a place to live.” The boy, says the grandfather, missed a single meeting with his probation officer and ended up in prison for five years over it.
A gentleman who had worked with the Chattanooga Homeless coalition said, “These are human beings. They deserve a chance like everyone else. We’ve all made mistakes.”
A woman who volunteers at Christ Chapel in Ringgold shared a story about how she and her husband picked up some homeless people on the way to church and even let the people’s dog and cat come along. “We had never met any homeless people before. We got a real burden for them, so we’re excited to hear we’re going to do something to help.”
Longtime Ringgold citizen and former state representative Bill Clark shared his thoughts on the situation. “There are two kinds of homeless people. Some are nomads, just passing through. It’s been going on forever. When I was growing up, they would knock on our door and my mother would invite them in for dinner, then they’d be on their way. I still sometimes find nomad homeless sleeping in my fields – they’re welcome to. I would ask the city council not to cause trouble for them.”
Law enforcement and DCS officers explained that they had to act within the law but that they were encouraged to see how many people cared deeply about the homeless and were willing to help.
An 18-year-old girl got up and challenged the gathering to give. “Who here has $20 in their pocket? I’m 18 and I do,” she said.
Also present were three homeless people, including the man who was still living under the bridge. One woman shared her own story. “I’m liv-ing in my car right now. I have a son with a mental disability,” she said. “It doesn’t take much to end up homeless. If I worked a job and paid someone to take care of my son or if I stayed home and took care of him myself, the result would have still been the same – I would have ended up homeless. We need to teach children in school about homelessness and let them know it can happen to anyone.” She said this was her se-cond time being homeless. Before the meeting ended, a pastor was sitting with her trying to find out how he could help.
A gentleman from Lafayette Presbyterian Church talked about a sub-stantial sum of money a parishioner had left the church in his will. “We met and decided we would not spend the money on something like a new organ and making the church more beautiful,” he said. “We chose two things we wanted to use it for — children’s healthcare and helping people being released from prison.” The church would like to see a residence where former prisoners can live long enough to get their feet on the ground.
Pastor Chris Bryant of Ringgold United Methodist Church said, “We need to approach this situation carefully and with compassion so we can avoid unintended consequences. I have a lot of questions right now, but we will do everything we can.”
As the meeting progressed, the group came closer to specific solutions. When Ringgold Police Department Administrative Co-ordinator Wayne Thaxton called for someone to help with the urgent problem of the man who needed a place to stay right away, a phone call was made and the owner of a motel offered a discounted rate of $30 a night. Pastor Justin Gazaway of Catoosa Baptist Tabernacle imme-diately offered to pay for part of it and Pastor Bryant and others joined him.
Ringgold City Councilman Terry Crawford said he had spent a consid-erable amount of time in prayer over the situation in Ringgold. “We have a very caring community,” he said. “On our (city council) side, we’ve done all we can do.” Crawford said he was encouraged to see the community taking action.
Ringgold Mayor Nick Millwood addressed the crowd a number of times. “When residents came to us and said they don’t feel safe in their own yards, we had to act. Now as a community, we’re all here together ready to act and help those in need.”
Note: Many more people shared important and heartfelt thoughts and ideas. We’re sorry we were not able to include everything everyone said or match a name to everything we did use for this article.