Saturday, January 30, 2016

Library food for thought...

Should libraries be used as a public resource to assist and offer day shelter to the homeless?

Typical American public library with an abundance of books and comfortable furniture.

Sleeper in the library.

 I recently read an article about how some public libraries are being utilized in some communities as day-time shelters for homeless people. Many of these libraries are in urban areas. How does a public resource, like a library, walk the fine line between giving all members of the community services and not being a place that is used or abused in a negative way and serving the rest of the community that may not be homeless? For me, the jury is still out on this one, so I am throwing this question out to you. Large libraries such as the San Francisco library now offer outreach services to homeless patrons and employ social workers to address the needs of the homeless.

Let's start by listing some pros and cons that can be seen from reading up on the subject a bit.

Some Pros:
A portion of society that has been marginalized can be less marginalized.

Outreach programs (provided by the library or organizations that wish to assist the library, can put those that need social services in touch with them).

Reading is a good way to gain knowledge, knowledge is a valued commodity in most communities. Libraries offer a vast amount of things to read/listen to, learn about, etc.

Knowledge gained from frequenting the library may help those who are unemployed or underemployed gain needed employment.

Simple kindness and compassion- to help someone who may be cold and needs a safe place to pass a bit of time.

Libraries or services found in the library can help otherwise disenfranchised persons change their lives for the better.

Persons can learn and practice computer skills and apply for jobs if they do not have access to the internet by using the library computers. 

Sleeping in the library.

Some cons:
Other patrons feeling unsafe when using the facility.

Hygiene issues such as body odor, or bedbugs infesting the furniture.

Unauthorized use of bathroom facilities for washing and changing clothes.

Loitering or camping on the grounds and using the landscaping for public urination when the facility is closed.

Possible intimidation of other patrons/ begging near the entrances.

Is being a day shelter a real part of the mission of the public library? (What is the mission of a public library in this day and age?)

Libraries are funded by taxpayer money and/or property taxes, should they be serving non-tax payers to the detriment of the tax-paying patrons? Is it a detriment after all? 

Some stories to illustrate that I did not just pull the pros and cons out of the air...

When applying for employment the vast majority of employers have an online application process. It has become difficult to just walk into a store, hospital, school, etc. and ask for an application. I have faced joblessness twice in the past three years and even when I did walk into a place of business to ask about hiring and getting an application, I was told to check the website. Individual states do offer services and skill classes as part of their government services, should the library do this too or is it a duplication of services? Is it less intimidating to go to the library than to a government office such as Work Force Services or whatever it is called in other states?

Library outreach providers say they can have a positive impact on this under served portion of society.

A female reporter pretended to be homeless to get the scoop on what it was like to be in that position. When she asked to stay in the shelter at night she was told by the shelter worker she would have to give sexual favors to be granted a place to sleep.

There has been complaining from more regular types of patrons at libraries where the homeless are seeking day shelter, that they have felt unsafe while using the library. They have been intimidated by those patrons, are witnessing inappropriate behavior in bathrooms, are assaulted by offensive smells and put off by messy and or disruptive people while trying to use their public library.

Libraries have had to have exterminators called in to eradicate bedbug infestations in the furniture, have had to make rules that sleeping bags and other large items cannot be brought inside.
Libraries have had to institute behavior and hygiene guidelines for patrons frequenting the facilities.

Many libraries are built as architectural wonders, incorporating art and state of the art building materials inside and out. These facilities can cost a pretty penny. Should these facilities be used or abused in such a way that they become a stain (or drain), rather than an enhancement to the community?

Personal experience has shown me that a substantial number of homeless persons do frequent libraries. For about two years every time I went to the Family History Library in downtown SLC, the same guy with disheveled hair and funny clothes was always there. I assumed he was a homeless guy who had an unusual interest in history or just felt like it was a pleasant place to pass the day. He never had a personal computer or any notebooks to copy or store information in, he was just there. Occasionally he would read something. He was messy looking but I never felt unsafe or experienced any bad smells (which seems to be a frequent complaint at libraries where the homeless hang out). He left people alone and was not disruptive, so the workers just let him be.

The architecturally savvy downtown Salt Lake City Library.

I rode the train into downtown for a few years to get to my place of employment and it was a regular thing to get asked by homeless persons hanging around the station if I had some spare change I could give them. Our city had a 'free-fare' train zone to encourage downtown visiting and shopping, and many homeless would ride on the trains, back and forth, in the “free” zone to keep warm or to go to the fancy new downtown library (which was located in that free zone) They hung out there until the shelters opened up in the evening. Certain patrons at the library would take possession of an group of chairs and hang out or sleep there. I just stayed away from those places when I visited the library.

I smelled body odor and dirty clothing on the train, yes from the homeless, but in reality anyone can have b.o. or dirty clothes whether they are homeless or not. A few times I felt intimidated, there were some places you did not go, in particular a certain city park, because of sleeping on benches, uncleanliness, and a rather unsavory element. Suburbanites have the option to just hop into their cars and go to a more acceptable park if they so desire, the homeless (and usually car-less) do not. Some places in the city were just left to the itinerant wanderers who always seemed to be in good supply there. Those particular places were located within easy walking distance from where the shelters were located.

I had an extended stay in Monterey, California last summer, while there, I frequented the library. I love books and also needed some specific information that could be found there. At the library I encountered homeless and non-homeless people. There was an abundance of sleeping rolls and backpacks littering the entrance and the few tables outside the doors were all occupied by scruffy looking men that I assumed to be homeless, hanging around the area. When the child I had with me, needed to use the bathroom we had to go on a wild goose chase to find it. It was hidden away on the second floor. Was that just because the building was made that way or was it by design? Who knows. Public bathrooms (and non-pay parking) in Monterey are darn hard to find.

Here's a statement from the American Library Association:

"People experiencing poverty or homelessness constitute a significant portion of users in many libraries today and this population provides libraries with an important opportunity to change lives.  As the numbers of poor children, adults, and families in America rises, so does the urgent need for libraries to effectively respond to their needs." 

Articles for perusal:

A sampling of public comments listed after some of the news articles I read about this subject:

1. “I am very sympathetic to the plight of the homeless but am concerned about diluting the
primary mission of libraries, which is to encourage reading and make books available to the
general public. I love the American library system and volunteer but wouldn't want to see
libraries used as homeless shelters.”

  1. “I really, really dislike walking my children past the homeless guys who sit in the leather chairs next to the children's reading room. A multi million-dollar library turning into a homeless shelter. Totally wrong.”

3. (In response to the above comment.) “The things you've witnessed are merely the results of
years of neglect of the problem of homelessness. You might dislike it but it's probably the
wrong emotion. Shame, might be better, shame that the world's richest nation cannot spare
enough money and compassion to provide for its poorest citizens.”

So...................tell me what YOU think..................................


  1. I'm always intrigued to know how many of today's homeless are in their position by choice, refusing assistance from family members or divorcing themselves from relatives who cannot even locate them to offer an assist. It's always been a question.

  2. True, some people may be homeless by choice or by their actions but does that give us the option to say they are unworthy of help?