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Metro's bench dividers at bus shelters seen by some as slap at homeless

Metro's bench dividers at bus shelters seen by some as slap at homeless


ST. LOUIS • At 17th and Market streets, Clinton Camp calls a concrete slab his home. At least it has been for the past few nights.

Camp, 45, has been homeless for years and likes the bus shelter overhang at this St. Louis spot. His backpack, tennis shoes and other gear rest on the bench at the bus shelter.

He sleeps on the concrete because two plastic dividers on the bench prevent him from stretching out.

"This will stop you from sleeping on the bench," Camp says of the brown dividers, about four inches high. "I sleep on the ground where it's colder. At least I have a backpack and mat. Not everyone who's homeless has that."

So far, Metro transit agency has added the dividers at 40 benches downtown. It has enough money now to retrofit 250 benches, and the agency might consider expanding it to hundreds more across the region. Metro started the project in August. 

The dividers should make it impossible for homeless people to lie down for a nap. Keeping homeless from sleeping on the benches "is not a primary reason, but obviously it's a factor," said Metro spokeswoman Patti Beck.

"It's all part of the loitering," she said. "You're not a customer and our customers come first. So if you are not a Metro customer, you shouldn't be loitering or hanging around."

Bench dividers have been used in other cities for years. Critics of the practice called benches in Tokyo's public parks, for instance, "anti-homeless" benches. Some U.S. cities retrofitted old benches, while others like Los Angeles had larger benches with molded-in seat dividers.

Beck said Metro customers who are waiting for a bus are reluctant to ask someone to move over if that person is taking all the bench space with bags or purses.

"We are adding them because it better uses the space for our customers," Beck said. "It makes the seats clearly designated. ... With the designated seating, we can maximize those benches."

Each divider costs $8.65, and each bench gets two.

The American Public Transportation Association has recommendations for rapid transit stops. "Design must discourage the use of seating for sleeping," the association says. It recommends using dividers along the length of a bench that is at least four feet long.

The Rev. Larry Rice of the New Life Evangelistic Center sees the dividers as symbols of "the ongoing war against the homeless." Rice says the anti-homeless sentiment is stronger than any time in his 42 years of working with the homeless.

"I have to choose my battles," Rice said. Bench dividers are a small problem, he said, compared with other challenges homeless advocates face such as trying to open new shelters. "Even if the benches didn't have dividers," Rice said, "police or Metro security would be running them off if they lay down."

William Siedhoff, director of human services for the city, said Metro made the move on its own, not as part of any broader city effort.

Michael Stoops, director of community organizing for the National Coalition for the Homeless, calls the bench dividers just one of many tactics some of the nation's largest cities have taken to "try to criminalize homelessness," beginning in the early 1980s. Other tactics include removing park benches altogether, putting covers over steam grates and outlawing panhandling and camping.

"Cities on a regular basis have been putting up dividers on benches and flower beds to keep people from making it their home," he said. "They won't admit it publicly, but it's targeted at the homeless population."

Stoops said it affects more than just the homeless. It affects people who are tired after a long day of work or those who are disabled and need more room to stretch out.

"The cities want to drive the homeless out of downtown areas, but it doesn't work," Stoops said. "The homeless will find a place to sleep."

Beck said Metro currently has enough money from its maintenance budget to retrofit 250 benches with the dividers. Metro has benches at all of its 500 bus shelters in St. Louis, St. Louis County and St. Clair County. The benches are 87 inches long and each seat, with the divider, is about 28 inches wide. 

"We are going to do as many as we can with the budget we have, and then assess doing more, in the future, as needed," she said.

The shelters shouldn't be confused with Metro's 7,434 bus stops. Some bus stops are just signs along the road. Some have benches and no shelters.

Camp, who uses the nickname "Road Dog," admits that some homeless can find a way around the dividers. They might push blankets near the plastic to make the lump less intrusive. Some cities have larger dividers that look like metal bars and are taller, resembling arm rests.

Camp, from Kansas City, said he hopes to make his way to Chicago soon, somehow. He says he is homeless for many reasons. He says he has physical and mental disabilities. He was hit by a car while riding a bicycle in North Carolina a few years ago.

He says the benches he remembers in Chicago, from the last time he was there, didn't have the plastic dividers. But he chooses to sleep in the subway anyway.

Camp is looking forward to leaving St. Louis. He says the homeless aren't treated well here.

"The cops mess with you in St. Louis," he says.

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