Downtown church removes outside benches to reduce crime, loitering

| July 30, 2012

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.

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