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Iowa City searching for solution to property problem

BY MEGAN SANCHEZ | NOVEMBER 15, 2013 5:00 AM

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A shopping cart full of blankets. A duffel bag stuffed to its brim full of personal belongings. Both of them left in a corner on the Pedestrian Mall — because, local officials say, the owners have no other place to store them.

In September, Iowa City passed an ordinance that prohibited the storage of personal property on the Ped Mall. But homeless people argue they have nowhere else to put their belongings.

Free storage may be the solution.

Thursday’s City Council information packet included a letter from Assistant to the City Manager Geoff Fruin that indicated the desire to create a free, 24-hour storage system as a possible solution.

“We began exploring different ways to provide [a storage] service,” he said. “The more we thought about it, the more we thought it made sense to seek some sort of nonprofit or partnership.”

Iowa City police Officer David Schwindt said he thinks the storage area is necessary because of an ongoing plethora of complaints about the issue.

“I had a number of people approach me with complaints about this because of the aesthetics and the safety,” he said. “People don’t know what’s in these bags.”

Although Schwindt said while nothing is set in stone, there has been talk of a plan that would provide checking out storage spaces, such as lockers, for 30 days at no cost.

He also said there is a possibility of having a social worker or police officer provide a signature of authorization for those using the lockers. He said this service should only be for those who need it and do not have housing.

Schwindt said one downfall of the ordinance is homeless people getting frazzled about where to put their belongings.

“If we ban [personal property] from the Ped Mall, they have to stay away, or stash their items, and I didn’t want to put that on private-property owners,” he said. “I am also concerned about the violence if a theft occurs, and I want to prevent that as much as I [can.]”

Although the new ordinance has had a large effect on the homeless population, City Councilor Terry Dickens said the goal of the ordinance does not simply focus on the homeless.

“The important thing is the ordinance is not a homeless ordinance,” he said. “It was a behavior ordinance, and there is a big difference between the two. But what came out of it is a lot of homeless people had no place to put belongings, and it’s important to work on that so they have a place.”

Fruin said City Council will review the idea at its Dec. 3 meeting. Until then, he said, not much will be known.

“This is really kind of the first step in reaching out to the community to see if there are interested partners,” Fruin said. “If there is interest, the city could purchase the lockers and maybe the [partnering] agency could operate it. Until we begin that dialogue, we don’t really know what the process is.”

Schwindt said he is hopeful about the idea, because he believes these steps would continue to improve downtown.

“I absolutely think it would make things better because it’s going to help the people who traditionally spend a lot of time here in the pedestrian mall to continue to spend time here without worry of violating new ordinances,” he said.


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