As she pedaled along her daily route on K Street early Thursday morning, offering coffee and conversation to homeless people in downtown Sacramento, Sister Libby Fernandez noticed that something was missing.
The benches that lined the K Street corridor had disappeared. Homeless men and women who usually had occupied the seats were sitting on sidewalks, leaning on railings and propped alongside planters.
Fernandez, a longtime activist for the poor, was outraged.
She wrote a Facebook post accusing the city of removing the benches to chase homeless people from K Street, which is close to the gleaming Golden 1 Center and has become a downtown hotspot teeming with new bars and restaurants. The post sparked a lively conversation, with dozens of people chiming in about the city’s response to a growing homeless population.
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“I’m so upset,” said Fernandez, who runs a bicycle ministry called Mercy Pedalers that serves homeless people. “This is so insensitive, so unjust and so inhumane.”
City officials said the benches were removed as part of a wide range of planned upgrades along the K Street corridor. They could be replaced by bicycle racks or other types of features that will better benefit people who frequent the mall, said public works director Hector Barron.
He said 10 metal benches have been removed in recent days as part of a “general maintenance improvement” project that also will include concrete work, tree trimming and removal of planters with dead or dying foliage. He left open the possibility that benches could resurface in the future.
“K Street has changed,” Barron said. “This is our opportunity to bring the corridor up to date, and remove and replace some infrastructure that doesn’t best serve the public.
“When you walk along K Street, it’s very clear that some of the furniture and infrastructure is past its useful life,” he said. “Things don’t look that great. It’s important to provide infrastructure that enhances the city.”
He said the presence of homeless people between the Convention Center and new arena has not been part of the discussion.
“I don’t think that’s where we are,” he said. “We work really hard to consider the needs of all of our residents.”
City Councilman Steve Hansen has pushed for improvements on K Street and was consulted on the maintenance project, Barron said. Hansen could not be reached for comment.
Mayor Darrell Steinberg, who was not consulted according to his office, declined to address the controversy over the benches.
Several people who responded to Fernandez’s post said they planned to protest the bench removals. Some pointed out that the benches were resting places for everyone, not just homeless people. One jokingly suggested launching a campaign to place lawn chairs along the mall.
“This is horrible,” wrote Helen Rogers. “I am not homeless, but have mobility issues. Those benches were seats where I could sit and rest. I will let the Mayor know how doing this affects a lot of people.”
Homeless advocate Paula Lomazzi wrote that the demise of the benches makes Sacramento “a mean and stupid city.”
A few years ago, the city removed benches outside of the Central Library on I Street, a favorite haunt for homeless people. Officials said the action was part of a “beautification project” in the area, not an attempt to discourage homeless men and women from frequenting the space. Advocates called it a tactic that has been used by cities from San Francisco to New York to “clean up” places where homeless people gather.
This summer, Sacramento’s Capitol Area Development Authority installed “leaning benches” near bus stops as part of a landscaping project. Those structures also have stirred controversy in other cities. But CADA said the bright red railings, designed to allow people to rest their backsides while standing, did not replace traditional benches and had nothing to do with discouraging homeless people from lingering in the areas where they were installed.
Fernandez said she sees such projects as efforts to keep homeless people out of public places.
The K Street bench removals likely will discourage some homeless men and women from congregating in the area, she said.
“Those who have the ability to move on probably will do so, to the next resting spot, maybe Cesar Chavez Park which already is filled with homeless people,” she predicted. “Others will just hang out on the sidewalks. This is also going to be hard on seniors who live downtown, hard on the disabled, and on people waiting for light rail. It makes no sense.”