Chattanooga returns one of several benches removed downtown, others planned

Staff Photo by Ellen Gerst / A public bench, seen Friday, at Phillips Park on Georgia and McCallie avenues near downtown Chattanooga was replaced this month, after the city removed it and several others in the area in the fall, citing problems with panhandling and harassment around them. The bench was replaced just days after a group placed its own wooden bench in the park.

One of several public benches removed from downtown Chattanooga in the fall has been reinstalled by the city after a group of residents installed their own bench in its place as an artistic statement.

The city also plans this month to return a group of six benches removed from Market Street near the courthouse, spokesperson Kirsten Yates said in a phone call Monday. Others will be replaced on a rolling basis, Yates said.

The missing bench at Phillips Park was replaced as part of a public art push by a group calling itself the Urbanist Society, but that's not why the city started replacing the removed benches, Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly said Monday.

(READ MORE: Group installs 'illegal' bench in Chattanooga park where city removed seating)

"I wasn't offended by it at all," Kelly said in a phone interview. "It's a kind of community conversation, so no, I think it's great. I didn't object to it in the least."

The city announced the removal of the benches along with several other homelessness initiatives in October, saying the benches had become hotspots for panhandling, harassment and other crime. Residents, workers and business owners in the downtown area had voiced concerns about the benches, city spokesperson Ellis Smith previously told the Times Free Press.

"We didn't take them up out of wanton cruelty," Kelly said. "We had specific public safety-related complaints about people, women in particular, being harassed and aggressively pursued. And it seemed like the best course of action until we could get the situation under control."

Members of Chattanooga's homeless community said that before they were removed, the benches were gathering places and sometimes served as places to sleep.

(READ MORE: Benches removed in downtown Chattanooga, limiting options for homeless)

City crews replaced the bench at Phillips Park on McCallie and Georgia avenues five days after a wooden bench was installed there by the Chattanooga Urbanist Society.

That bench, painted red and white with "This bench is illegal, but shouldn't be" written across its front, may now be used in another location, according to a representative of the Urbanist Society who asked not to be named to honor the collective nature of the group.

When the city's public benches were first removed in October, officials said they would be returned once more progress was made on other anti-homelessness initiatives including a planned downtown low-barrier shelter and crisis training for workers in the area.

Kelly said that since the benches were removed, the mayor's office has met with representatives from the Police Department, Downtown Chattanooga Alliance and business owners in an effort to address the problem of harassment in the area. The police co-response program, which sends licensed mental health professionals on certain calls alongside officers, should also be expanded in the coming months, Kelly said.

City officials in the mayor's office reached out to the Urbanist Society after the bench was installed to talk about their common interest in improving the city's infrastructure. They've discussed using the city's 311 system to coordinate litter pickups and updated the group on the status of the removed benches, Yates said, and invited group members to come into the mayor's office for a meeting.

(READ MORE: Hamilton County mayor: Decommissioned CSLA campus could serve as homeless shelter)

"We are grateful for their civic engagement," Yates said. "We wish more folks were as in tune with what's going on here."

The bench at McCallie and Georgia was a longtime sleeping spot for one man experiencing homelessness. Removing it addressed only a symptom of homelessness, not its causes, the Urbanist Society representative said.

"He had never left the area, he was just sitting in an alcove across the street," he said. "The bench had never really pushed him out of the area. He was always there. So it didn't even work from our standpoint."

Kelly said the city knows removing the benches doesn't address underlying causes of homelessness. The mayor hopes to continue working on addressing housing, addiction and mental health, which could reduce the number of people who become homeless in the first place.

(READ MORE: Chattanooga homeless coalition maintaining 18 rooms for displaced Budgetel guests)

"Ultimately, the answer is housing. I mean, we're not at all confused about that," Kelly said. "I'm as frustrated as anyone that we have not made more progress on the structural side of the equation, but we are grinding away at it, and we will make a lot of progress this year."

In the meantime, the Urbanist Society has plans to continue building and installing painted benches around the city, especially along high-traffic bus routes.

The group has gained traction in the Chattanooga area on Instagram, the representative said, and nationally and internationally on TikTok. Last week, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate Jo Jorgensen posted photos of the group's benches on her Instagram page, promoting its work. The group has been fielding dozens of emails and messages from people looking to volunteer, donate or collect wood.

"Right now, we've got more offers than we can organize," the representative said.

The group has placed four benches so far and is building four more this week.

Contact Ellen Gerst at or 423-757-6319.