Micheal Reinmiller of Lincoln created a petition with the goal for the city to remove specific architectural pieces downtown, including metal pieces on concrete seating areas. He said he believes the features were created to discourage loitering and isolate people experiencing homelessness. He said he hopes the architecture, which includes benches with metal bars that cannot be laid down on, can be replaced with something more friendly.
Reinmiller, who is a member of the Homeless Coalition and is on the board for Fresh Start, a homeless shelter for women, first started researching this issue in 2013. He said he hit a brick wall when he created a petition and reached out to former Mayor Chris Buetler and the City of Lincoln in 2017, but his desire to advocate for change was relit this year after he watched a John Oliver segment on what Oliver referred to as hostile architecture.
Dan Marvin, the director of urban development for the City of Lincoln, said the city told Reinmiller in 2017 that the center armrests on benches on P Street were placed there to deter skateboarders from grinding on them. He said the city also installed metal clips on the ends of some benches, with no arms in between.
Reinmiller said he was told by city council members in the past that the bars are there to help the elderly stand up.
“Memorial Stadium should have bars on every single seat then, right? It just seems so easy to come up with an excuse,” he said.
Reinmiller said the anti-homeless benches are starting to rust and will likely need to be replaced soon, so this is the perfect time for the community to set things in motion to get the city to replace them with something more friendly.
Marvin said he does not believe the city is intentionally making it impossible for people to lay down on any benches downtown. He said there are a number of benches downtown that do not have bars.
“Do we want to do the flip side and encourage people to lay down out on benches in the downtown? I’m not necessarily sure that’s in our interests either,” he said. “We’ve spent a fair amount of effort through the Downtown Lincoln Association and others to do all sorts of preventative efforts for homeless people from being homeless.”
Marvin said those preventative efforts include outreach programs and resources for people experiencing homelessness to find subsidized housing.
Walter Russell, who is experiencing homelessness in Lincoln, spoke at a City Council meeting March 28 and said Lincoln needs to do more to help people experiencing homelessness in the city.
“We’ve got to start taking care of our own, or we’re not going to have any own,” he said. “We’ve got to start giving each other hope.”
Reinmiller said the issue is often pushed under the rug because homelessness is seen as taboo.
“I think people are just really uncomfortable with folks that are experiencing homelessness, and all of us are so close to that,” he said. “I’m a photographer. If I break my right arm in a car accident, then I’m pretty close to homelessness real quick. Five bad reviews on Google, and no one’s going to hire me.”
When people experiencing homelessness are pushed out of sight, it creates the assumption that homelessness must not be much of a problem, Reinmiller said. If people experiencing homelessness were to be more visible, the issue would be something that more people recognize needs to be addressed.
“It feels like the hostile architecture is designed to push people away from here. ‘We don’t want you here,’ ‘Go somewhere else,’ ‘We don’t see you’ and ‘it doesn’t bother us,’” he said.
Reinmiller said this issue is about compassion and the values of the Lincoln community.
“This lack of empathy and compassion is far more dangerous than the nature of the architecture itself, as it inspires separation and condemnation of the homeless community. This is ‘othering,’ isolating a group of individuals and degrading their humanity,” Reinmiller said in a tweet.
Reinmiller is working to get Lincoln churches, boards and nonprofits on board and to sign letters addressed to the city council about removing hostile architecture. His next step will be to take the petition to the city council and the mayor’s office.
The Lincoln City Council did not respond to our request for comment.
As of April 13, the petition has garnered 902 signatures.