Homeless advocate says city tried to take out downtown benches

Tribune-Star/Austen LeakeStay seated: People came out Friday to sit on benches near the intersection of Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue that they said the city was trying move out of downtown in an effort to push out the homeless. Mayor Duke Bennett said the city was only exploring its options and "nothing has changed. No change at all."

Homeless advocates staged an hours-long sit-in Friday in downtown Terre Haute, but the mayor says it was much ado about nothing.

Advocates say city employees had come before noon to the Max Ehrmann Plaza to remove benches at Seventh Street and Wabash Avenue, benches long-known to be popular sleeping places for the homeless.

Martina Hull, lead case manager for Mental Health America of West Central Indiana, was driving past the plaza when she saw Terre Haute Parks Department employees looking over the benches.

She says they had come — at Mayor Duke Bennett's behest — to remove the benches in an effort to force the homeless out of downtown.

Hull said she parked her car and then parked herself on a bench.

"When I saw they were going to be removing the benches, I wasn't going to tolerate that," Hull said. "That's not who we are as a community and that's not what we stand for.

"So I planted my butt on a bench to make sure it wasn't going anywhere and started calling out people to help so that the rest of benches wouldn't go anywhere."

Hull, an outspoken proponent for the homeless, put out an SOS on Facebook and had more than 20 people on benches by noon.

But Mayor Bennett said Friday afternoon that Hull was mistaken.

"There is no story on this bench thing," Bennett said. "I don't know how else to say it."

Bennett said he sent parks employees to the plaza to inspect how the benches were mounted. He said a contractor had installed the benches when the plaza was constructed and that the department needed to know by what process the benches could be removed if the city decided to do so in the future.

"I've had a lot of business owners ask me about our options in dealing with the homeless downtown," Bennett said. "And so we're just exploring our options. That's all we're doing. Nothing has changed. No change at all."

And while she understands homelessness is unsightly and a concern for downtown business owners, Hull said the city has offered no alternative for those facing homelessness.

She then tasked not only the city, but all its residents, to do whatever it is they can to help the homeless.

"We need to do better for homelessness as a whole," Hull said. "We need to provide more beds, more services. But until we can, the very least we can provide is a wrought-iron bench so that they can stay and be safe at night."

The city does not own the property on which the plaza stands, but does own the Ehrmann statue, the benches and the water fountain, Bennett said.

Reporter Alex Modesitt can be reached at 8112-231-4232 or at alex.modesitt@tribstar.com. Follow him on Twitter @TribStarAlex. 

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