Downtown Benches Cause Controversy

Back to Article
Back to Article

Downtown Benches Cause Controversy

Henry Mildenstien

Henry Mildenstien

Henry Mildenstien

Henry Mildenstien

Hang on for a minute...we're trying to find some more stories you might like.

Email This Story

In an effort to improve the pedestrian mall, the downtown district decided to replace 80 of the old benches downtown with 70 newer benches featuring three seats as opposed to the one seat benches with no dividers. To many people, it seems as if the change was meant as a hostile action towards people experiencing homelessness. The main opponent to the new benches was the Catholic worker house who started the initiative to replace the new benches with ones similar to the old ones. The city estimated this would cost around 150,000 dollars.

Colin Fowler, the beat cop for the Iowa City downtown suspects that the new benches won’t affect people experiencing homelessness in Iowa City.

“During the recent local debate about the benches, I have yet to hear a single homeless person talk to me about it. I have also never heard of any of them being offered a place to sleep in a church, which are full of benches and out of the elements,” Fowler said.

Fowler often interacts with people experiencing homelessness during his shifts.

“I often start my shift in the morning with a walk through the Ped Mall and it is very rare to find someone sleeping on a bench from the night before. Most of the time when people talk about people sleeping on the benches in the downtown they are referring to people they see sleeping during the day. When I get called to respond to those people they are often intoxicated and didn’t mean to sleep there,” Fowler said.

Fowler believes that people experiencing homelessness do not prefer to use the benches as a place to sleep.

“I talk to people experiencing homelessness every day. We are on a first name basis and I often connect them to resources. They tell me that they don’t like to sleep on the benches overnight because they are so exposed. When the bar crowd heads downtown they head to their sleeping spots. They prefer anywhere with shelter instead of the benches.” Fowler said.

Ingrid Streitz ‘19 believes that the newly designed benches are a negative addition the downtown Iowa City.

“I don’t like them but they still have a good amount of the old ones left that people can sleep on. If they replaced all of them I wouldn’t be ok with it I don’t think,” Streitz said.

Cady Gerlach, The Director of Strategic Operations and Resource Management at Shelter House thinks that the benches are not a hostile act towards people experiencing homelessness.

“During the evening hours we are not aware of people sleeping on the benches. There wasn’t any hostile design with the benches. For the last two years there was a very long and open public process where the materials are picked out, there were designs layed out, and there were meetings about the benches at the public library,” Gerlach said.

Gerlach also believes that homelessness is a distraction to the central issues involving the newer benches.

“I think the conversation about homelessness was a distraction to the central issue of public planning and how people use the benches downtown. The benches are a newer kind with a divider in the middle. If you have ever been to an airport people don’t tend to sit next to people they don’t know without a divider.” Gerlach said.

While Gerlach is an advocate for people experiencing homelessness, she does not believe that having one seat benches accomplishes the goals that people think they will.

“At shelter house we are working everyday to house people. I don’t think benches are a long term solution to fixing the central issue that people experiencing homelessness face which is the lack of housing,” Gerlach said.

Gerlach is also happy with the amount of work the City is putting in to help the homeless population.

“They have supported a lot of endeavors and infinitives in affordable housing, they have worked with interesting and innovative zoning codes, and they have worked with different agencies with addressing direct homelessness and with agencies that help contributing factors to homelessness,” Gerlach said.

Gerlach also recommends that if people are interested in helping the homeless population that they get educated on the topic.

“The primary issue that they are facing is the lack of housing. So we need to work on the affordable infinitive and permanent supportive housing for people experiencing homelessness,” Gerlach said.