Editorial: Proposed rules only hide homelessness


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Last week, the Iowa City City Council approved an ordinance that, if implemented, would place a number of new restrictions on “loitering” downtown.

The ordinance would prohibit sleeping on planters, lying or sleeping on benches from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m., panhandling at entrances to the Pedestrian Mall and near parking meters, and using public outlets without permission. The proposal would place limits on storing personal items.

City officials and the Iowa City Downtown District say these rules are necessary to allow people to remain comfortable in downtown. The proposed ordinance is pretty clearly aimed at the handful of people who frequently loiter near the north entrance to the Pedestrian Mall.

Some local business owners and shoppers believe that these people detract from the downtown.

While recognizing that this wouldn’t fix the entire problem, City Councilor Michelle Payne said, “We need to do something now so people still want to go downtown.”

This sentiment is mildly overblown. Granted, the loiterers are occasionally loud and asking for change may be off-putting to some, but such behavior probably won’t scare people away from the entire downtown.

The Daily Iowan Editorial Board believes that while businesses need patrons to feel comfortable enough to shop downtown, this ordinance will serve primarily to move the city’s transient population somewhere less visible, effectively sweeping them under the rug.

Moreover, the ordinance may not even improve the purportedly unwelcoming atmosphere downtown. The most frequent complaints include swearing, storing personal items, smoking, and littering. Aside from the proposed restrictions on private-property storage, alleviating all of these problems would require constant vigilance from the Iowa City police, and eradicating these practices would be extremely difficult.

There is some disagreement about whether increased actions against Iowa City’s loiterers are warranted. City Councilor Jim Throgmorton cast the lone dissenting vote against in the ordinance.

“The fact that some of us feel uncomfortable does not mean that certain people in a certain area are dangerous,” he said.

Ultimately, we have to question whether the ordinance is truly about making downtown a more family-friendly place or just cold hard economics. Is the City Council intent on removing all downtown annoyances or simply the unprofitable ones?

Consider that while the small crowd of loiterers may be annoying to some, drunken young adults on weekday and weekend evenings seem to be an equal or greater public nuisance that is mostly not being combatted by the city.

The most conspicuous difference between Iowa City’s loiterers and its drunk young adults is that the presence of the latter usually means great business for bars and restaurants. Despite their general rambunctiousness, they impulsively spend money.

In spite of the widespread perception that Iowa City’s loiterers are bad for business, at least one local business owner is against the proposed ordinance.

Kurt Michael Friese, who owns the restaurant Devotay and is the executive chef at Shelter House, argued in a blog post that a simple ordinance that restricts some activities wouldn’t solve homelessness.

“… when you look past the symptoms and focus on causes, the solutions become more complicated than passing rules that ban sleeping in flower beds or pushing shopping carts past the splash pad,” he wrote. “Those are mere Band-Aid solutions, and treating a symptom that way may hide it, but it won’t cure it.”

Friese noted that Shelter House, the city’s only facility for the homeless, is usually full and that in July, it had to turn away an average of 20 people per night. The situation, he writes, is much worse in the winter.

Some of the activities of Iowa City’s transient population need to be addressed, but implementing this ordinance alone will only hide the homeless instead of addressing their plight.

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