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Iowa City Officials To Consider Replacing Some Benches As Critics Label Them Hostile To Homeless

Iowa City officials say they’re considering replacing some benches downtown after advocates labeled them as hostile to homeless people. Two dozen advocates chanted and carried signs through the downtown Pedestrian Mall Monday to draw attention to the issue. 

When Mark Montgomery returned to Iowa City after serving in Iraq, he says he was homeless for a time, and sometimes slept on the benches in the Pedestrian Mall downtown, a tree-lined plaza frequented by shoppers and students.

He says the old benches, featuring whimsical paintings by area artists, were a welcome place to linger for people who didn't have many other options.  

"Iowa City doesn't have much affordable housing...so people sit on the bench, not by choice," he said.

During recent renovations to the Ped Mall, the city began installing new benches with a metal armrest in the center, replacing the old ones that were easier to sleep on. Advocates with the Iowa City Catholic Worker House, which offers food, services and temporary shelter to people in need, characterize the benches as "hostile architecture" meant to prevent homeless people from resting on them. Montgomery spoke at Monday's protest led by the Worker House.

"Now look at them: cheap IKEA furniture in the downtown mall…obviously the bar is there for a reason," Montgomery said. "It’s to keep out the homeless, vagrants."

Organizers with the Worker House point to transcripts of an Iowa City Council work session in 2013 as evidence that the city installed the benches with the intent of discouraging homeless people. At the time, then-council member and now-mayor Jim Throgmorton said installing benches of this design could be a way to keep homeless people away.

"A friend also suggested the possibility of inserting, uh, in order to deal with the sleeping on benches challenge, to uh, this person suggested inserting, uh, a new arm rail in the middle of...of the benches. You know, that makes it pretty hard to...to stretch out and sleep," Throgmorton said in 2013, according to transcripts of the meeting.

On Monday Throgmorton attended the protest and spoke with critics. He says his 2013 comments were taken out of context, and that the council is addressing homelessness. City Manager Geoff Fruin is in the process of analyzing the cost associated with replacing some of the new benches with ones that do not have a center armrest. The coucil is slated to discuss the plan at a meeting next Tuesday.

“I’m absolutely certain that we will tell him [Fruin] to purchase some new benches that do not have the armrest in the center and then they’ll be interspersed within the Ped Mall," Throgmorton said. "So we’re responding.”

Throgmorton says the city is taking larger steps to support people experiencing homelessness, pointing to millions of dollars of investment in a county-led behavioral health urgent care center, affordable housing developments, and support for a new housing-first apartment complex operated by the Shelter House.

Kate Payne was an Iowa City-based Reporter