Illicit activities provoke bench removal and National Park Service renovations

Cement slabs sit on the ground where there used to be benches in this small national park area. Photo by Sean McBride

On Aug. 20, benches adjacent to and across from New York Avenue Presbyterian Church were removed. Twenty-one days later, at a full council meeting of the D.C. Interagency Council on Homelessness, a community member raised concerns about the missing benches at the public comment period that beings each meeting. No one on the ICH seemed to be aware of the change just outside of the city’s Downtown Day Services Center that opened earlier this year. ICH Director Kristy Greenwalt told the commenter that she would look into it. 

There were at least eight benches on the north side of H Street NW, at least nine in the small National Park Service area adjacent to the church, and several more on the south side of H Street NW. They had often been occupied by homeless people, increasingly so since the opening of the day center, which is located on the ground floor of the church. 

[Read more: Eating lunch on one of the benches changed this man’s life]

Photo showing six cement circles around three sides of an iron tree planting area on a sidwalk.
Circular slabs of cement fill holes and cover iron support bars where bench posts used to be around a tree box on H Street NW. Photo by Eric Falquero

In response to questions about the removal of the benches, the National Park Service provided this statement: “Working with area residents and law enforcement officials, the National Park Service recently trimmed hedges, removed benches and made other improvements to one of our areas along New York Avenue in order to address a recent increase in crime in the area, including drug dealing and prostitution, according to a statement from The National Park Service strives to provide a safe and welcoming environment for all of our visitors in all of our parks.”

Regarding plans for replacement of the benches, NPS Chief of Communications Mike Litterst said, “We will monitor the situation in the park going forward and may make changes accordingly, but there are no further plans for the park at this time.”

[Read more: Several Street Sense Media artists and vendors reflected on the benches’ removal]

This contradicts what personnel at the Presbyterian Church previously told Street Sense Media, which is that plans were in place for “improved shrubbery, rat and rodent abatement, and alternative seating.”

Neil Albert, the CEO of the Downtown D.C. BID, which runs the day center, told Street Sense Media, “As you know, the BID takes care of parks in the downtown D.C. area all the time, so we’re always looking to make them good spaces for everyone, not just people experiencing homelessness. So what we plan to do at the request of the Park Service is provide bistro tables and chairs, you know the red ones that are in Franklin Park, as soon as the Park Service finishes its rehabilitation of the park, [including] cutting back the tree canopy and some new plantings in the area. The park will be ‘refreshed’ to some extent, and part of that refreshing is to make sure there are tables and chairs in the park.” 

[Read more: The Downtown Day Services Center opened in February after years of lobbying from advocates]

“Like any park in the downtown D.C. area, there’s sometimes illicit activity,” Litterst said. “And I know the Park Service has done some stings over a period of time.”

All 23 benches that were removed are visible in these Google Street View images from October 2018. Twelve were in the small park, seven were on the north side of H Street NW and four from the south side of H Street NW.

Update (12.03.2019)

An interactive Google Street View module and caption have been added to this article.

Issues |Addiction|Health, Mental

Region |Washington DC

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