Non-profit says they have proof Iowa City is lying about Ped Mall benches

Published: Jan. 13, 2019 at 10:41 PM CST
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Iowa City is using hostile architecture and targeting its homeless population. A nonprofit in town has been making that claim for weeks and said they now have the proof.

The issue centers on the new benches. They were installed around the Pedestrian Mall at a cost of about 150,000 dollars. They have center armrests, which the city has said are to increase seating in that area.

The homeless advocacy group "Iowa Catholic Worker" calls them a clear example of hostile architecture. Homeless can no longer use the benches to lie down. The group also said the city was lying when they said it was for comfort.

"It turns out that was a lie," said Iowa City Catholic Worker Volunteer Ethan Forsgren. "That came up, as the transcript shows, because the city found out that this was a strategy other cities used to move people out of their downtowns."

According to a 2013 city work session, then-city councilmember Jim Throgmorton brought up a friend's idea that similar armrests could help stop people from taking naps.

"In order to deal with the sleeping on benches challenge, this person suggested inserting a new arm rail in the middle of the benches. You know, that makes it pretty hard to stretch out and sleep," said Throgmorton at the work session.

Mayor Throgmorton said the nonprofit is taking the transcripts out of context. He said the city's homeless were more aggressive in 2013, citing a case when a man allegedly pulled a knife on somebody at the Ped Mall, five days before the work session. Thogmorton said those discussions have nothing to do with the current benches.

"I was just tossing out something from a friend and it's true," said Throgmorton. "One can put armrests in the center but we did not decide to do that in 2013. There was no formal decision to do that. "

Throgmorton said the city is doing all it can to help those less fortunate. It's supporting a 200 million dollar Behavioral Access Center and investing in a new housing building.

"We have a huge nationwide problem with homeless here. It's mainly chronically homeless people," said Throgmorton. "We have been and are investing."

But the nonprofit remains unconvinced.

"Iowa City needs to look at itself and say who is the city built for," said Forsgren.

City officials did point out when they initially held public forums on the new design for the divided benches, they didn't receive any negative feedback. They are however considering removal of at least some of them given the current frustrations.

Iowa Catholic Worker plans to have a "sleep-in" demonstration Monday afternoon at the Ped Mall.