A few weeks ago, those who frequent the downtown Jacksonville area were surprised to find all seating areas suddenly removed from Hemming Park.
This sudden lack of seating came in conjunction with “beautification” renovations that, among other changes, removed ledges that were often used as sitting space and added a metal fence around the park’s fountain area.
The removal of these benches was proposed as far back as 2012, but that proposal was met with opposition from residents and was ultimately never acted on.
Instead, five years later, the city opted to remove it all overnight without any further public discussion.
WHY DID THEY DO THAT?
It’s not exactly difficult to figure out the reasoning behind the removal of all seating space in the park.
The city wants to get rid of the park’s reputation as a gathering place for its homeless population. The theory is that with less places to loiter comfortably, the “unsavory” crowd will disperse and therefore make downtown’s central park more appealing.
It’s a strategy that dates back decades and has been employed by several other major U.S. cities for various reasons, but most commonly to try to get rid of the “wrong kind” of visitors to their parks. It sends a clear message to park visitors: keep moving, this isn’t a gathering spot.
WILL IT WORK?
Simply put, no.
Other cities have tried this before, sure, but it never quite works out as planned. It may chase away some loiterers, but it also chases away any other resident who was just looking to relax in the park. It makes everyone feel unwelcome, not just the people the city is trying to scare away.
It ends up turning the park into a dead zone. And who’s most likely to choose to camp out in low-traffic places where they can be unobtrusive to others? Homeless people.
Not to mention, homeless Jaxsons can still be seen huddling around the Skyway station, in corners, or really anywhere they can, in the aftermath of this change. They’re still in Hemming Park, they’re just even more uncomfortable than usual.
So in addition to not effectively chasing away homeless people, there’s the more significant issue of thinking that chasing them away will actually solve anything.
To be clear, Hemming Park doesn’t have a homeless problem. Downtown has a homeless problem. They want these people to disperse from the park, but they have no real plan (or concern) as to where they’ll go after they leave the park.
In all, it seems like a rather half-baked approach by the city.
The homeless problem is one that doesn’t go away by shooing them off as if they’re rodents. It’s a hard problem to tackle, but it has to be tackled with compassion and understanding. The goal has to be getting our homeless population off the streets – not just off our pretty park benches.
Hopefully the city will one day start taking a smarter approach to tackling homelessness in the urban core.
Until then, it looks like Hemming Park is going to be kind of a bummer for everyone.