Catholics convince city to change course on ‘exclusionary’ benches

By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger

In late November, David Goodner of Iowa City Catholic Worker saw a man sleeping on a park bench in Iowa City’s popular Ped Mall area. At the time, the city was about halfway through a project to replace traditional park benches with ones that include center armrests.

Contributed
Father Guillermo Trevino talks to a reporter during a “sleep-in” event last month in Iowa City.

Goodner snapped a picture of the man, whose back was to the camera. Then, he took a photo of the new benches, which use center armrests to separate the bench into three smaller sections. Observing that the new design makes stretching out impossible, Goodner posted the photos on Iowa City Catholic Worker’s Facebook page and posed the question: “Do Iowa City’s new Ped Mall benches discriminate against the homeless?

The benches had gone up about two months prior without much fanfare or attention. But the post went viral, Goodner said. Some agreed that the new benches created a barrier for the homeless, while others expressed support for the new design. Opposition was strong enough to start a grassroots effort to convince the city to change course.

As opposition grew, city officials defended the choice, saying the purpose of the center armrests was to create the illusion of additional seating, to entice people to sit next to each other and better use the benches. Goodner saw things differently, noting that city officials discussed center armrests in 2013 as an exclusionary design tactic to discourage the homeless from sleeping in the Ped Mall.

Iowa City Catholic Worker began a social justice campaign to raise awareness of the issue and, hopefully, convince the city to change course. On Jan. 14, Catholic Worker hosted a “sleep in” at the Ped Mall, where participants laid on benches, passed out information and talked to passersby. The event drew attention from local media. Catholic Workers held a closed-door meeting with City Manager Geoff Fruin.

Father Guillermo Trevino, who participated in all aspects of the campaign, led a prayer vigil at City Hall on Jan. 22. Fr. Trevino serves as parochial vicar of St. Patrick Parish in Iowa City and St. Joseph Parish in West Liberty. “I felt this was important as no one is there to stand up for the least amongst us,” Fr. Trevino said. “The neglected, ignored, the voiceless needed support and I jumped onboard!”

On Jan. 22, during a work session, city officials agreed to change course. They decided to order 14 of the new Ped Mall benches without a center arm rest and save as many of the remaining 17 hand benches as possible. The painted benches will be spread throughout the Ped Mall. About 40 percent of all the benches will not have center arm rests. This new plan saves the city about $10,000 on the project; the board agreed to donate that money to Shelter House, which serves the homeless in Iowa City.

At the beginning of the Jan. 22 city council meeting which followed the work session, Mayor Jim Throgmorton read a consensus statement on behalf of the entire city council thanking the Catholic Worker House, and called the action by the council a “necessary course correction.”

Goodner said the city’s decision to change course proves the effectiveness of people banding together for a cause. “The fact that so many people prayed and spoke out for what’s right caused a big difference. Everyday people using their voices can have a big impact.”

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