The sight of Troy’s Department of Public Works employees removing benches from Barker Park on July 31 drew outcry from many Troy residents. It’s led to a storm of social media threads and community bulletin board discussion.
There’s even a Change.org petition to have the benches replaced. The removal of the benches also appears to coincide with the city’s ouster of Street Soldiers II, a volunteer program that provides meals for the homeless in the park every Thursday, a program that has existed for over three years.
Robin Ford, team lead for Streetsoldiers Troy II, says that her group was given August 1 as a deadline to leave the park by Deputy Mayor Monica Kurzejeski after a back and forth in which the deputy mayor insisted the group pay for an insurance permit to operate in the park.
Ford says that at first she rejected the idea of spending $1,000 on insurance, as her group is made up of volunteers and filling a clear need in the city. With the pandemic and a cratering economy, her group’s mission is growing more critical by the second.
The mayor’s office first encouraged Streetsoldiers Troy II to partner with existing organizations like the YWCA or the Italian American Center, but Ford says the conversations didn’t pan out.
“We had a conversation with the YWCA about joining them, but we’d be losing our organization, because they do meals on the same night. We don’t just do meals; we hand out necessities like coats, underwear and shoes.” The YWCA isn’t close to the bus stop commonly used by the clientele the group serves.
Ford also notes that Barker Park is in close proximity to St. Joseph’s House, a shelter that offers support services for the homeless.
After that idea fell through, Ford says, the Deputy Mayor offered the possibility of Riverfront Park, but, Ford says, “I didn’t have a warm and fuzzy feeling about it.”
It’s Ford’s opinion that the city simply doesn’t like the sight of so many homeless people gathered in a park near a major city thoroughfare. “They want to tuck us away in some corner. It’s not a convenient image for them.” She also says she fears growing gentrification in the city played into the decision.
She notes however, that the deputy mayor repeatedly expressed support for Streetsoldier’s mission during their meetings.
Finally, Ford caved. She says she contacted the deputy mayor and offered to donate the money to pay for an insurance policy.
“She told me that is not going to happen any longer. ‘We’re not going to have you at Barker Park.'” The deadline deputy Kurzejeski gave was August 1. That was on July 15. However, Ford noted that there seemed to be a corollary between their deadline, and the city’s actions on the benches in the park. “It’s ironic that that’s the same day they took out the benches,”
The city did give the group an extension until August 6.
John Salka, Public Information Officer for the City of Troy commented to 518Independent. “Due to the small size of Barker Park and ongoing concerns over COVID-19, the benches were temporarily removed. The city will assess how best to utilize the park, including the reinstallation of benches, in consideration of public health protocols for social distancing during the pandemic.”
Ford spoke to this reporter as she was leaving her group’s last setup at the park. They’ll be in the parking lot of St. Anthony of Padua Church at 21 State Street starting next Thursday.
“We’ve been doing this for three years,” she says. “We started with 12 people and tonight we had 90.”
This article originally identified the YMCA as a potential partner organization for Streetsoldiers when in fact it was the YWCA.
This article was updated to include comments from John Salka, Public Information Officer for the City of Troy