IOWA CITY, Iowa (KWWL) — The Catholic Worker House has been vocal in its belief that new benches in Iowa City target the homeless population. On Monday, the city sat down with them about their concerns.
In November, in a post on Facebook, the worker house voiced the opinion that new benches downtown were anti-homeless and an example of “hostile architecture,” so that people couldn’t sleep or lay down on the benches.
Iowa City engineer Scott Sovers told KWWL the benches were chosen based on several public input meetings and were to optimize and increase seating opportunities.
“I think it was more along the lines of providing more flexible seating for folks that may not necessarily be with somebody else, and they want to have an opportunity to sit on a bench where there may be a stranger sitting by them,” Sovers said.
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After starting the conversation, the Catholic Worker House has turned into action. They’ve handed out fliers to the community and area churches about their stance on the benches.
“Our goal is to have all the benches without an armrest to go back to the old bench style, and that’s what we’re pushing for,” Ethan Forsgren, a Catholic Worker House volunteer and Iowa City resident, said.
On Monday afternoon, the worker house took that conversation to the city in a sit-down interview to ask that all the benches be removed and replaced.
“I think the center armrest is really just symbolic of hostility towards certain behaviors, certain people in the community, and we need to think about who occupies public space; who it’s built for. It should be built for all of us,” Forsgren said.
Iowa City City Manager Geoff Fruin represented the city in the meeting. Police Chief Jody Matherly and a few additional officers were also present to listen and answer questions.
“I brought up what I shared, can I sleep there? Then I mentioned the students. There were different leaders giving different perspectives talking about the elephant in the room, is this anti-homeless?,” Catholic Priest Guillermo Trevino said about the meeting. “One of the arguments is that it’ll create more seating. That’s not true. Kinnick Stadium, they don’t have rails on every row because they want as many seats as possible.”
Father Trevino ran the meeting between the worker house and the city.
“The least among us, we have to think about because nobody stands up for them and that’s what we’re trying to do,” he said.
The Catholic Worker House also brought six people that had experienced homelessness. Peggy Aguilar was one of them.
Aguilar came down on her luck after having a stroke.
“It was important to me to let people know that people can become homeless for a lot of different reasons and this public space is needed,” Aguliar said.
The meeting lasted approximately 45 minutes, according to the worker house. They said it was a productive meeting and the city was willing to listen to them.
“We’re going to keep fighting and we’re asking for the public’s help, as well,” Father Trevino said.
Fruin said the city is always open to sitting down with people on any topic. He added the city council already instructed the city to look into the costs of replacing the benches. That does not guarantee that the city will, but it’s something the council will explore and discuss.
Fruin said the council expects to discuss the benches more in-depth at a future meeting. The date for that has not yet been set.