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Putting all your eggs in the wrong basket September 3, 2006

Posted by sezed in Library Stuff.

One issue that libraries seem to face if they have a presence in a urban envionrment is what to do with the homeless who seem to flock to libraries.  It seems that the trend over the last 30 years has been to cater to the idea that the library needs to serve the population especially those less fortunate.  Perhaps this approach is why so many libraries are facing difficulties.  Many urban libraries, including the central branch of the St. Louis Public library have a large contingent of homeless that spend each and every open day in the library.   I would even wager that 60% or more of the door count is from these individuals entering  and exiting the library repeatedly.  THey are attracted by air conditioning in the summer, heating in the winter and the public restrooms.  The problem is that they drive away other portions of the population.  Legitimate users of the library don’t want to use the central branch since they fear and dislike the great unwashed horde.

     Now I don’t have a problem with offering services to all segments of the population.  Everyone deserves to use the library so long as they use it in a manner consistent with the library’s rules and regulations.  What I am suggesting is that perhaps libraries cut too much slack to the homeless and less fortunate individuals out of some misguided sense of political correctness and this is costing them patronage and support from the segments of their populations that vote and pay taxes.

Now the SLPL is working to dissuade those individuals who break the rules from using the library.  Time will tell if these efforts have the desired effect.  They have to do this with a great deal of caution since there is this perpetual fear that they will be accused of discrimination.  In the interim this means adding additional guards and added expense to the library.  Is this really the library’s job?  Shouldn’t the city be doing more to discourage vagrancy?  Some cities have basically offered one way bus tickets to individuals to encourage them to move on.  Is this wrong?



1. DrumPhil - September 5, 2006

This is a tough issue. What if I, an employed person who bathes regularly, like to just hang out at the library to pass time over my lunch hour? Chances are no one is going to say anything to me about vagrancy, because I don’t look like a threat. However, a well-groomed adult could also be a pedophile looking for targets. What rules or guidelines does the library use to determine vagrancy? Does it look like “profiling,” which has gotten police departments into so much trouble?

Perhaps an urban library in such a situation could take initiative, together with other civic leaders, to help resolve homeless cases – actually help the people obtain services to get them out of vagrancy, rather than just pushing them away to be vagrant elsewhere.

2. lcwk86 - September 5, 2006

Many libraries, such as the one in question, have “disturbance” policies. The disturbance may be noise, too many packages in tow or offensive hygiene. This policy can be effective while not while not profiling or discriminating against a particular group. Not that it’s possible to determine who is a member of a particular group. There are visitors that may appear homeless but instead may have mental health issues. And this policy can also be subjective. What may be disturbing to a one-time visitor may be not be to a regular patron of that library who may welcome the diversity (all kinds–race, ethnicity, economic status, etc.) I feel very strongly about serving the population in its entirety. That doesn’t just mean opening the door and letting everyone in. Serving everyone effectively means finding a balance that helps all types of patrons coexist peacefully to use our resources and services. This recipe includes policies that serve as guidelines rather than iron clad rules, an administration that is willing to supplement or change policy when a need is identified, dedicated staff that enforce policy to the best of their abilities on any given day and patrons who respectfully observe these policies because they value the library.

3. DrumPhil - September 6, 2006

This makes sense. The key to an effective library is service. Patrons who create disturbances prevent other patrons from receiving the service they need and deserve.

Reference librarians often tell people where to find a local gas station or ATM, or where to investigate a student loan. Why not extend to the homeless information about where they can receive the services and assistance they need, at local shelters and agencies?

4. heyheypaula - September 7, 2006

This is a hard question. I remember someone who lived in New York saying that their libraries didn’t have as big of a problem with homeless hanging out there, because there were other options there, lots of shelters, lots of alternatives. I don’t think you can use “taxpayer” as a litmus test, but the “disturbance policy” seems to be a good idea (including, of course, disturbance of the nose). The key to not profiling and to being fair is to enforce the same rules for everyone. If its not okay for a homeless person to be stinky in the library, then it isn’t okay for anyone else, either. If the rule is that you have to use library resources or leave, then it should be applied across the board. If there are specific reasons why the homeless folks are driving away the other patrons…address that reason. If they are sleeping, then the rule is you can’t sleep there, if the problem is drunkeness, then you can’t be drunk in the library, etc, instead of a rule that homeless peole can’t use the library. If good guidelines like that are in place, problems can be addressed fairly.

I didn’t always have a home…there was a period of time in another city that I had no address, and I practically lived at the library, for hte AC and Heat, but also for the resources. I used resources every minute I was there, followed all the rules, and was generally courteous to those around me. The library helped me get my act together and become a librarian. I guess the point that I am making is that you never know who is homeless and why…and what they are there for. None of what I said really helps this complicated problem at all…it’s really a tough nut to crack.

5. DrumPhil - September 8, 2006

Thank you for sharing your story, Paula! It does help. You make a good point–guidelines exist to ensure that people use the library as a library, not as a place to sleep or carouse. And even though you had external motivation (heat, A/C) to spend time at the library, you still used it as a library.
(I also like the idea of libraries with attached cafes, similar to the big bookstores.It gives people a less structured place to relax and interact in ways not traditionally encouraged in the library setting. But this is a little off-thread.)

6. lcwk86 - September 8, 2006
7. julia - September 15, 2006

I get a kick out of the older men who stake out their tables in Clayton when the doors open, though that seems more like adult day care than a homeless shelter annex.

8. Ryan Deschamps - October 1, 2006

I, personally, remember a story about a gentleman who appeared unkempt, coming to our library and, while not being a “nuisance” per se, annoyed many of the staff because he would, in minor ways, violate policy from time to time (inappropriate viewing of internet sites, attempting to get extra computer time and so on).

Well, as it turns out, he felt that he was treated well enough by us, because he showed up one day with a very sizable cheque for us to improve access to computers. Looks can be very deceiving sometimes.

It is important to remember that public libraries are one of the very few places that a person can just hang out without being valued only as a consumer of goods, or a person of high status. And libraries, in my view, are a good form of leisure, since they highlight personal development, learning, and yes, even hygiene.

That does not mean that we do not have policies and the most difficult situation ever is having to tell someone to leave because they smell bad (even moreso when it is a staff person!). The important thing is that we are concerned with behaviors — not people. The fact that someone is homeless is not a problem for us. The fact that their behavior, smell, loudness, drunkeness etc. impact the experience for others is a problem. Of course, we also rely on customers to tell us something is wrong because enforcing such policies can be very difficult with tied-up budgets and few staff.

Public librarians wear their war stories on their sleave, I find. A couple of challenges for me:

A man who does nothing wrong but chooses to wear a mask on his face at the library (and is therefore unidentifiable).

A woman who breastfeeds in public (this, in itself is definitely not a problem for the library and government policies in my province insist that we are not allowed to ask someone to “cover up” in this instance), but then leaves her breasts bare for the remainder of her visit to the library.

Our government only allows a maximum 6-month ban from a public space for inappropriate behavior (that is not illegal), so what about the guy who gets banned and shows up again to do the same thing (watch porn visable to others) when his ban is up?

There are plenty of these kinds of stories. I find that we scare people off public service because of them, though. That’s not the intention though. I love public librarianship, partly because of these challenges. It’s nice to face the really hard policy questions.

9. lcwk86 - October 2, 2006

True Ryan, we can definitely tell the war stories, but public service involves this kind of stuff pretty much whatever venue you choose. I very much agree that it is a challenge that can be welcomed in finding the balance of serving the most people in the best way regardless of the “interesting” situations.

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