“We don’t have a facility or a place for them to go stay,” Dunn said. “I would love to see us develop that. I think it’s a burning need in our community. I am very interested in assisting that kind of endeavor, but there is no place like that now.”
The handful men living under the bridge right now are either there because they lack the finances to live anywhere else, and in some cases are registered sex offenders with limitations on where they can take up residence.
“They lose the things they have. They lose their jobs. They lose their homes. They lose their families sometimes. And they get out of their incarceration and there’s no place to go,” Dunn said. “Sex offenders cannot live within so many feet of a school, church, community center, a public library … places where children congregate. There are counties in the state of Georgia where there is literally no place in the county where they can legally reside because of these distance restrictions.”
Dunn even pointed out the Drug Court system that was put into place in the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit ( serves Catoosa, Walker, Dade and Chattooga counties) last year, which works to rehabilitate non- violent offenders instead of sending them to prison.
He explained that some folks can’t take part if they’re considered homeless.
“There have been a number of people who in all other respects qualified for the program, but we had to turn them away because one of the requirements is you have to have a stable place to live,” Dunn explained. “We’ve had folks we’ve turned down for Drug Court simply because they could not produce a place that met the criteria of the court program, so they couldn’t get the habilitation and treatment that the Drug Court provides.”
After Dunn voiced his opinion as both a Ringgold resident and one whose profession is based on defending those in need, Councilman Black reaffirmed why the issue was brought up to begin with – because residents are concerned.
Black also spoke about a new issue that was realized over the past couple of weeks, the fact that the campers are utilizing equipment that could be dangerous given that there’s a major gas line running underneath the bridge.
“I put this issue on the agenda after city residents contacted me as one of their elected council members expressing concern about the individuals living under the bridge,” Black said. “We now have a safety issue that has come up where there is a Georgia Natural Gas line under that bridge. With their grills and their cooking appliances and things like that, it’s something else that we as a body have to take into consideration about that safety aspect of it.”
Mayor Nick Millwood said he and Councilman Kelly Bomar looked at those concerns firsthand.
“When Kelly and I went out there, there was a kerosene heater and a propane tank, and it’s like ‘oh my goodness, they have it going on down here right now,’” Millwood said.
“Maybe part of the solution is to ban those things and not necessarily the people being there,” Dunn replied. “If you ban them, they’re either going to be in violation of the ban, or they’re going to be just somebody else’s problem. I don’t think we want to be pushing them off on somebody else without trying to solve the problem.”
Black said the purpose of bringing up a potential ordinance was to look at prohibiting the camping, erecting of tents/temporary structures, and to keep people from sleeping in a certain place for a substantial, prolonged period of time.
Black explained that an ordinance would include exceptions for instances such as Boy Scouts camping in the city with adult supervision. He called those situations “common sense type exceptions”.
As far as the history of the men currently residing under the bridge goes, Black said he got confirmation from the sheriff that some are indeed registered sex offenders.
“I was contacted by the Catoosa County Sheriff’s Office and told that their state-mandated sex offender registry required to be maintained by the sheriff, indicates that at least five convicted sex offenders are listing the Ingle’s bridge as where they sleep at night,” Black said. “We’ve been discussing this issue to help the homeless. It’s a valid concern that must be addressed at some point by this mayor and council.”
The council wound up not taking any action on a potential ordinance.
Councilwoman Sara Clark insisted that people attend the public forum slated to take place Nov. 15 at First Baptist Church of Ringgold on Nashville Street.
“I hope those citizens who did have this concern come to that forum,” Clark said. “They need to be there and they need to express their concerns.”