Some accuse new Ped Mall benches of discriminating against homeless

New benches on the Pedestrian Mall have sparked debate over how homeless individuals cope with frigid weather.


Shivansh Ahuja

Benches are seen at the Ped Mall on Wednesday, November 28, 2018.

Kate Pixley, News Reporter

As temperatures plummet, local conversations swirl on how the homeless population will manage through the winter.

The installation of new benches on the Pedestrian Mall has emerged as part of those conversations. Individuals and groups such as the Catholic Worker House in Iowa City have contended that the new benches on the Pedestrian Mall  discriminate against the homeless.

RELATED: ‘Unconditional’ Shelter House housing project near completion 

The Catholic Worker House posted a complaint against the benches, which contain a bar in the middle, on its Facebook page.

Catholic Worker House spokeswoman Emily Sinnwell said staff members spoke out because they were concerned about inclusion in downtown.

“When we saw the benches, we were concerned because benches with middle armrests are designed to prevent homeless people from sleeping on them,” Sinnwell said in a statement to The Daily Iowan. “Downtown Iowa City should be a place for everyone.”

To help the homeless stay safe and warm, Shelter House will open its doors for the fifth year in a row at its Winter Emergency Shelter.

RELATED: Shelter House takes a step to combat homelessness

Kaily Hoard, the community-engagement manager at Shelter House, said the shelter removes some requirements of staying in the SouthGate facility.

“… People don’t need to be sober, and they don’t need to follow any program requirements,” she said. “So, we take those barriers away so that everybody in the community has a warm, safe place to sleep regardless of their circumstances at that time.”

While winter does pose additional challenges to the homeless population of Iowa City, Hoard said the shelter does not see an increased number of people seeking services, and need remains consistent throughout the year.

According to the Shelter House website, the organization provided emergency shelter for 877 people in 2017, 16 percent of whom were children.

In addition to the winter shelter, the Shelter House is working on a new, permanent housing project for Iowa City’s homeless population.

Laura Iosbaker, the Cross Park Place program manager, said tenants of the new building will have case managers available to assist with physical and behavioral health, but residents will not be required to participate in the programs.

“Shelter House has always desired to provide housing to those experiencing homeless,” Iosbaker said in an email to the DI. “Cross Park Place is a housing-first approach that was identified to assist chronically homeless individuals in our area who have been unable to be successful in other housing models.”

Hoard said that although the need for shelter remains the same throughout the year, individuals who sleep outside during winter months face an increased risk of death and injury from exposure.

“People do pass away from hypothermia and things like that,” she said. “Even frostbite can cause permanent injury that will then affect that person’s life, so I think that those are really real dangers that people face if they are sleeping outside during winter months.”

Shelter House has obtained a permit from the city to allow up to 30 people to sleep in the lobby of the SouthGate facility in case of overflow at the Winter Emergency Shelter.

“We’re really trying to make [shelter] available to as many people as possible that need to use it,” Hoard said.