The Sarasota City Commission voted unanimously Monday to keep benches out of Selby Five Points Park, citing as their main reason for doing so the recommendations of the Sarasota Police Department and two organizations that are champions of the homeless community.
The benches were pulled out of the park last summer after residents and business owners complained they attracted transients and panhandlers who intimidated them and didn’t allow them to stroll into nearby shops.
Sarasota Police Lt. Randy Boyd told commissioners that, without a doubt, the area around Selby Five Points Park is safer since the benches were removed.
“When the benches were there, we were getting untold numbers of complaints, and crime numbers were up,” Boyd told commissioners at their regular meeting. “Now that they’re gone, it’s a nice, safe place to visit, and that’s our goal.”
Boyd suggested the city not consider putting benches back in the park unless codes were in place that prevented the park from becoming a gathering place “for homeless people that continually commit crimes.”
“The problems have been alleviated there,” Boyd said.
The Rev. Tom Pfaff, chair of the Sarasota Ministerial Alliance, also suggested the benches remain gone.
“We had a super majority of our 11-member board agree not to return benches because of the testimony we heard from (the police department),” Pfaff said. “When benches are there, the crime comes.”
Pfaff said putting the benches back in the park only encourages the homeless to use the park instead of several downtown agencies enlisted to care for them.
“We are enabling them to continue being homeless and encouraging them not to go to the care of downtown agencies,” Pfaff said.
Director of Public Works Doug Jeffcoat also reported that 14 of the 16 emails the city received on the issue were in favor of the benches staying out of the park.
“There’s even been comments made to staff about the park being so much cleaner now, even though the level of service there hasn’t changed,” Jeffcoat said.
The majority of the 25 people who spoke on the matter were in favor of keeping the benches out of the park, including Downtown Sarasota Alliance Chairman John Harshman.
“Returning the benches would have a dramatic and negative impact,” Harshman said.
Downtown resident Frank Brenner agreed.
“To restore the benches would offend reason and ignore history,” Brenner said.
But some favored the replacement of benches at the park.
“People do want to know where the benches are,” said Occupy Sarasota leader Paul Tuttle.
Some retirees also voiced support for the replacement of the benches, claiming they haven’t shopped or eaten downtown as much since they have been removed.
Commissioner Shannon Snyder made a motion that received a 5-0 unanimous vote to keep the benches out of the park.
A suggestion by Commissioner Willie Shaw to consider renting chairs in the park on an hourly basis will also be looked into by city staff.
Vice Mayor Terry Turner told the crowd Monday afternoon that the decision should not be viewed as one that discriminates against the homeless.
“There will surely be those who say Sarasota is the meanest city,” Turner said. “But the residents of Sarasota are generous, caring and wish to help those in need. But not every person on the street wishes to be helped.”
Turner noted the city has multiple services for the homeless and provides hundreds of thousands of free meals to the homeless each year.
Update: The benches remain removed from Five Points Park and the controversy surrounding the issue has decreased.