July 27, 2012

Downtown church removes outside benches to reduce crime, loitering

Several years ago, First Presbyterian Church placed several wooden benches outside its sanctuary near Central and Broadway, across the street from the Lord’s Diner.

Several years ago, First Presbyterian Church placed several wooden benches outside its sanctuary near Central and Broadway, across the street from the Lord’s Diner.

The idea was to give homeless people and others in the neighborhood — including those waiting for a free meal at the diner — a comfortable, shaded place to sit. The diner serves 500 to 600 people nightly.

Unfortunately, officials say, the benches became a magnet for crowds and crime.

“We’ve had a problem there for some time,” said Wichita police Sgt. Travis Rakestraw, who patrols areas of downtown Wichita. “There was drinking and drug use and people congregating at all times of the day and night.”

This week, in response to growing concerns about crime in the area, the church removed the benches and erected new portions of wrought-iron fence around its Gothic stone structure.

The Rev. David Reiter, interim pastor and head of staff for First Presbyterian, said Friday that eliminating the seating — intended to be a “gesture of hospitality for people walking on the streets” — was “not an easy decision.”

“It was not functioning the way it was intended, and some very serious and very criminal behavior had been happening,” he said.

“We didn’t want good people to be at risk for that kind of behavior.”

Leaders of the Lord’s Diner said they understood and sympathized with the church’s decision.

“You know how a few kids on the playground can spoil it for everyone,” said Jan Haberly, director of the Lord’s Diner.

“Whenever you have a large number of people congregating in one place, you’re going to have problems. … Hopefully this will disseminate some of that and there won’t be such large gatherings.”

Since the Lord’s Diner opened in downtown Wichita in 2002, the surrounding area has seen an increase in crime, records show.

Wichita police records show that 130 major and minor crimes were reported in the 500 block of North Broadway last year, including 40 reports at First Presbyterian Church, 525 N. Broadway.

The crimes included 27 assault and batteries, 13 liquor violations, 11 drug violations, six aggravated assaults, five disorderly conducts and two auto thefts.

Rakestraw, the police sergeant, said a stabbing outside the diner in 2010 prompted church officials and other neighbors to consider and debate additional safety measures.

“We met with all the stakeholders there and talked about options,” he said. “We compiled crime stats and talked about options and shared some crime-prevention tips.

“The church made the decision to pull up the benches, and I think that makes sense.”

Reiter, who came to First Presbyterian in November, said the church’s decision was “not in response to the diner’s activity,” despite increased foot traffic in the area when meals are served.

Depending on the evening, Rakestraw said, 50 to 100 people or more would gather on and around the benches outside the church. Some were patrons of the diner, but others weren’t, he said.

“It became just a gathering spot for people in the area,” he said. “We’d get quite a few 911 calls during the afternoons and evenings, but also other times.”

Among drug dealers and customers, Rakestraw said, the area came to be known as “The Benches.”

“I think the church had great intentions and really wanted to make a difference and provide an area that was safe for people to wait and rest,” he said. “But some people just ruin things for everybody.”

The diner usually opens its doors at 5 p.m. and serves dinner from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. During recent 100-degree days, Haberly said, it has been opening earlier, sometimes as early as 4 or 4:30 p.m., to allow patrons to wait in the air-conditioned lobby.

One recent afternoon, a man waiting in front of the diner said he supported the church’s decision to remove the benches, at one point looking across Broadway at the fence and applauding.

“It’s good,” said the man, who did not want to give his name. “There was nothing but trouble over there.”

Haberly said the Lord’s Diner has “a great relationship” with First Presbyterian, which has a volunteer group that serves meals regularly at the diner.

“They’re great people, and I know they … agonized over this,” she said. “It’s unfortunate. It’s too bad it had to happen, but everybody understood.”

Rakestraw said police will continue to monitor the area around the diner at meal times to see how and where patrons disperse.

“We’ve had meetings about this and talked about the issues, so I don’t think it’s going to surprise anybody,” he said. “At least there won’t be the large numbers congregating in that area.”

Contributing: Amy Renee Leiker of The Eagle

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