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How Libraries Cope With Homelessness

campLast week, House the Homeless looked at public libraries and the difficulties that arise when the library becomes the default day shelter for people experiencing homelessness in a community.
Well, where are the homeless supposed to exist all day? As we have mentioned before, “Everybody’s gotta be someplace.”

Libraries have been stepping up to meet the challenge. From various parts of the country, we hear of public libraries that teach homeless people how to use computers, or print up cards with information on whatever services are available throughout the city. Some libraries respond by sending out a bookmobile, or providing a story hour at the local shelter. Some even let shelter addresses be used to get library cards. They start book clubs, show movies, or devote space to a social-services information center. In San Francisco, the library put a full-time social worker on the staff.

On the other hand, some libraries have taken extreme steps to change their physical environment in such a way as to discourage lingering. In one place, where people had been sitting or sleeping on the deep windowsills, they put up spiky iron railings.

A community might think it very important to educate library personnel in how to educate the homeless in the proper uses of library restrooms. Of course, no one wants their child to go in there and find some unfortunate street person stripped down and taking a sponge bath. But people do need to wash. That might be something that cities could devote more attention to.

Ironically, in the District of Columbia, from which our nation is governed, the public library’s “offensive body odor” policy was declared unconstitutional. Any such rule has to be enforced across the board, not just against people who appear to be homeless. Otherwise, it’s “poverty profiling.”

A couple of years back, plans for the renovation of the Madison, WI, Central Library sounded welcoming. Judy Keen wrote:

Accommodating the homeless is a key part of a $29.5 million redevelopment… Architect Jeffrey Scherer, who devised the Madison renovation plan, says incorporating the needs of the homeless is a recent trend. In Madison, seating will be rearranged to suit varying preferences of homeless patrons and restrooms will be moved within staff sightlines.

It wasn’t really explained how moving the restrooms so the staff can watch more closely is really an accommodation to the homeless. Anyway, the library’s brand new FAQ page asks, “Will the homeless still hang out at the new library?” The answer includes these items:

1. The architectural design for the new library eliminates the current outside open space by the main entrance on the northeast corner of the library (at N. Fairchild and W. Mifflin) where many homeless are known to congregate. That entire corner will be reclaimed by the new library.

2. The library will provide inside space for a variety of social service agencies that will help the homeless find more permanent housing, treatment, and work, making them less likely to remain homeless.

3. The library will offer programming for the homeless, such as book clubs and movie matinees, and require codes of conduct to address issues such as hygiene and behavior to prevent their presence from distracting or intimidating other patrons.

The Public Library Association maintains that libraries have a moral duty to help everyone participate fully in our democratic society, even the homeless and poor. They offer a wonderful educational page covering the legal implications of library rules, along with the ethical obligations that go along with a free society.

Amy Mars explains that it’s acceptable to regulate behavior and appearance, when those factors interfere with the rights of other patrons, and their ability to use the library. But the rule must be against the behavior, not the person, and equal enforcement is the key. Mars writes:

This means that if sleeping is prohibited, it cannot be enforced only against the homeless; it must be enforced against all patrons, including children, teenagers, the elderly, prominent community members, and so on.

And this brings up another point. Disruptive behavior is not always caused by inebriated miscreants. People suffering from epilepsy, schizophrenia, autism, Tourette syndrome, and other medical conditions can cause disruption, and so can the library’s most generous private donor, if she happens to have a heart attack while at a board meeting. Library staff members need to be trained to, at the very least, tell the difference between a situation needing an ambulance call and one needing a police call.

Mars quotes attorney Mary Minow, who drew up the handy “FEND” “best practices” guidelines:

First Amendment: Libraries must protect the right of free speech.
Equal Enforcement: Policies must be applied consistently.
Notice: All policies should be clearly posted or distributed.
Due Process: A well-defined appeals process must be available to patrons who challenge library policies.

Reactions?

Source: “Libraries welcome homeless to ‘community living rooms,’” USA TODAY, 12/13/10
Source: “Library Service to the Homeless,” PublicLibrariesOnline.org
Image by Internet Meme.

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Homelessness and Public Libraries

Seattle Public LibraryWhen the Democratic convention took over Charlotte, NC, one of the preparations was the closing of the downtown public library for a week. The public library is one of the great American institutions. The library has also turned out, in many cities, to be a focal point for the conflict between homeless and housed citizens. In Madison, WI, the main library is such a popular hangout, people experiencing homelessness always know where to find their friends.

This summer, in Gloucester, MA, exasperated library employees told Nancy Gaines about the problems they experienced with homeless patrons — not all, but maybe 10%-15%. The staff faced an ever-changing stream of challenges, and two or three police visits a day, interspersed with the occasional ambulance. The city’s homeless shelter was, of course, only open at night. Several churches stepped up, on a rotating basis, to provide a space for people to exist during the daylight hours.

Bethlehem, PA, instituted new policies last year to strictly prohibit many activities, such as washing up in the restrooms and sleeping. In fact, it’s even against the rules to bring a sleeping bag inside. The situation had been dicey for some time, but reached critical mass when a van started dropping off a group of homeless people every day. The library maintains that its function is not to be an adult day care center, and it is correct in that. But everybody’s got to be somewhere.

Last winter, word came from Atlanta, GA, that not dozens, but hundreds of people experiencing homelessness were hanging out at the libraries every day. In Lubbock, TX, the architecture of the main library became a problem because people were using the partially protected space as a shelter, an urban cave dwelling.

The same thing happened in Fort Collins, CO. A new main public library was built in 1974, with overhanging sections all around, that were originally filled with substantial bushes. When the economy started to slide, people stored their belongings, and sometimes themselves, among the foliage. Eventually, all the big bushes were uprooted and much skimpier and lower plants were installed.

Seattle, WA, made news in 2009 when it became the first library system to hire an outreach worker. At one point, the library was spending over $300,000 a year on services and security relating to homelessness. Last month, when the Seattle’s public library system ran out of money and shut down for more than a week, journalist Matt Driscoll asked, “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?” More people showed up at the Urban Rest Stop, a center with shower and laundry facilities, which was already operating at peak capacity.

Another agency, Compass Housing, which offers a number of amenities, also had increased traffic. Normally, Driscoll says:

While there are rules and security measures in place designed to keep the Central Library from becoming a full-on shelter, it’s commonplace for the homeless to seek refuge at computer terminals and amidst the stacks during foul weather – or even just to pass the time until real homeless shelters open in the evening.

At one point, the satirical publication The Onion ran an article stating:

In addition to the destitute citizens who have long sought shelter here, the ongoing recession has forced hundreds of newly homeless Americans to seek refuge among the library’s shelves.

The headline read, “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District.” When you can’t tell the difference between satire and reality, a society is in real trouble. On the other hand, what an opportunity this central gathering place offers, for engaging people and bringing them into the community, rather than pushing them farther into the margins. Where political activism is concerned, the popularity of the public library among people experiencing homelessness has a definite upside. It’s a great place to register voters, and put a dent in the disenfranchisement that is spreading through America like a plague. In fact, why not designate all libraries as polling places?

In Petaluma, CA, the situation improved in the spring when the town’s soup kitchen was relocated. E. A Barrera interviewed librarian Doug Cisney, who described problems like drunkenness and fighting which have now decreased. In all fairness, the librarian also said most of the homeless library users are well-behaved and considerate, even helping clean up the surrounding landscape. Cisney is quoted:

I can ban an individual from the library if it is determined that person is disturbing others. We have very clear policies that make soliciting, begging, dressing inappropriately — as in bare feet, bare chests, disturbing outfits — and excessive problems with body odor or decorum unacceptable. But you have to use that power with good judgment. A person’s excessive use of cologne or perfume can be as unpleasant as someone who has not showered in a week.

Good point.

Reactions?

Source: “’Homeless’ visitors posing issues for library,” GloucesterTimes.com, 06/18/12
Source: “Homeless patrons prompt Bethlehem Area Public Library’s behavior policy,” LehighValleyLive.com
Source: “Where Do the Homeless Go When the Library Is Closed?,” SeattleWeekly.com, 08/31/12
Source: “Census Finds Enough Homeless People Living In Public Library To Warrant Congressional District,The Onion, 12/22/10
Source: “Homeless no longer a problem at library,” Petaluma360.com, 04/06/12
Image by moyix (Brendan Dolan-Gavitt).

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Charlotte and Its People Experiencing Homelessness

DNCA while back, House the Homeless blog looked at how cities prepare for the Olympic Games, political gatherings, and other large-scale events. Mostly, they take extreme measures to remove street people, giving them bus tickets to anywhere else, or corralling them in an area unlikely to attract tourists. Sometimes they’re kept off the streets by relatively benign means, like free tickets to museums or movies.

If their papers are not in order, it’s easy enough to just turn them over to la migra. Tales are told of increased arrests and imprisonments for petty violations. Makeshift shacks and lean-tos are of course demolished, and the Potemkin Village syndrome comes into play. (Supposedly, when the ruler of Russia, Catherine the Great, was touring around to inspect her country, some functionary named Potemkin traveled ahead and built impressive-looking facades of prosperous villages, like film sets.) In those circumstances, people very much resent being moved around like dirt swept under a rug.

In the county that contains Charlotte, NC, site of this year’s Democratic Convention, about 5,000 people are experiencing homelessness, and fewer than 1,000 regularly sleep in shelter beds. Some live in cars.

Apparently quite a few fall under a slightly different definition of homelessness, where technically the person has a place to sleep, even if it is a very insecure and temporary position on somebody’s couch. It is estimated that fewer than 100 hardcore, long-term homeless people live totally outdoors. The situation has certainly not been improving. According to the U.S. Conference of Mayors, in 2010, family homelessness in Charlotte increased by 36%, and in 2011, increased another 21%.

During the convention planning, Mark Price kept track on behalf of the Charlotte Observer. A group called Charlotte Center City Partners took a great deal of interest in humane alternatives. The director of the local Men’s Shelter met with the convention promoters; and took on extra staff and trained them to help the street people understand the rules and restrictions that would apply during the convention. There were a lot of places you couldn’t go with a backpack or a shopping cart, but also plenty of information about how to stay out of trouble.

The city passed a new law against camping on public property. The transit center was moved to a temporary location several blocks away, and the main library was just plain closed for the duration. To make up for the loss of these hangouts, the Homeless Resource Center prolonged its usual hours, and other venues figured out ways to allow for more people to be present during the days.

Many homeless advocates foresaw that the biggest impact would fall in the “transition housing” category, mainly the economy-class motels where low-income families exist crammed together in one room. It would be particularly harmful to school-age children, because almost none of the families have the transportation necessary to get their kids to school from anyplace but where they’ve been living.

But Charlotte planned ahead. A $20,000 fund was raised by businesses, churches, and the government, to help with rent. Thirty-six churches figured out how to provide for nearly a 100 extra beds on the average convention night. As David Jamieson reported for The Huffington Post, motels multiplied their rates as much as tenfold, for the convention period. He and others spoke with some displaced people, most of whom admitted that they were behind on their rent anyway, and seemed not to blame the business owners.

Because the economy is so slack and the opportunities so few, people end up in these “transitional” situations for years, long enough to take a philosophical attitude about being moved out for a week or more. (Or is that just a journalistic Potemkin Village?)

Jamieson has some good news:

Not every motel, however, chose to pounce on the short-term windfall. Monica Wojtkowski, general manager at an Extended Stay America near the airport, said the hotel didn’t raise rates or ask current guests to leave. ‘This is just the philosophy we had. We want to maintain good public relations,’ she said.

When the president’s outdoor speech in a stadium had to be moved indoors, Mark Price followed the story. For whatever reason, the food could not follow to the new venue, so Second Harvest mobilized, called all the soup kitchens and shelters to see how much their refrigerators could hold, and delivered 7,500 pounds of fancy catered vittles to the people experiencing homelessness.

The Charlotte Observer opined:

After the Democrats pack up and hit the campaign trail, 3,000 or more homeless adults and children will still be here. Both of the city’s primary shelters are often over capacity, and nonprofits such as Crisis Assistance Ministry are working overtime to keep people in their homes. It’s tragic that Charlotte — a can-do city, as landing the DNC attests — can’t-do on homelessness. More than four years after Charlotte and Mecklenburg governments endorsed a 10-year plan to end homelessness, the community has made little progress in implementing a comprehensive strategy to truly fix the problem.

Unfortunately, the current situation seems to follow the Waterbed Paradigm. Remember waterbeds? You can sit on one, and the water will be suppressed. It will also create a bulge in some other part of the mattress. The dent you make by sitting on the waterbed is an illusion. There may be less of it in one spot, but there is still the same amount of water in the bag.

In a recent speech, President Obama said:

The young woman I met at a science fair who won national recognition for her biology research while living with her family at a homeless shelter — she gives me hope.

Isn’t it supposed to be the other way around?

Reactions?

Source: “Charlotte won’t hide the homeless during the DNC,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/21/12
Source: “Charlotte Homeless Outside DNC Cling To Motels,” The Huffington Post, 09/05/12
Source: “Let’s help homeless beyond DNC week,” CharlotteObserver.com, 08/27/12
Source: “Local charities benefit from 8,000 pounds of food leftover from DNC’s canceled stadium event,” CharlotteObserver.com, 09/07/12
Source: “Remarks by the President at the Democratic National Convention,” WhiteHouse.gov, 09/06/12
Image by Stevebott (Steve Bott).

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Political Parties Make Homelessness Worse Than Ever

Convention Center, TampaTampa, FL, and Charlotte, NC, each received $50 million in federal funds for security at their national political conventions. Charlotte purchased more than $300,000 worth of bicycles for its cops, and lavished over $700,000 on a “command center upgrade.” Tampa bought itself a new armored SWAT vehicle with a price tag crowding very close on $300,000, and spent more than a million buckaroonies on spy gear, including video linkage between helicopters and the police down below.

If you’re anything like the people at House the Homeless, every time you hear numbers like that, your mind automatically translates the figures into how many meals, how many socks, how many months of rent for a struggling family whose kids need a table to do their homework on and a roof under which to do it.

And how have the homeless been faring, in the two cities thronged by visitors including America’s best and brightest?

On August 24, Elisabeth Parker reported on the mindset of local authorities in Tampa, which was preparing for the Republican National Convention. Bob Buckhorn, the mayor, said that the city had set no policy with the intention of removing people experiencing homelessness. A police spokesperson said there were no plans to displace the estimated 700 chronically homeless people from the downtown area — except for the streets that would be closed to all pedestrians.

The entrenched downtown dwellers represent only a small fraction, because the greater Tampa area contains around 16,000 homeless people, and about a fifth of them are children, which divides out to about 3,200 homeless children. How does a major political party have the nerve to hold its big self-congratulatory bash in a city with 3,200 homeless kids?

A team from Hillsborough County’s Homeless Coalition passed out flyers with maps detailing the closed areas, while police officers were advised by their department’s homeless liaison to recommend that people go to the shelters. But according to people on the streets, the Salvation Army shelter was already full, two public libraries where many were accustomed to sit out the days had been closed, and police told people to remove their belongings from hiding places in the shrubbery.

Tampa also expected to cope with 15,000 protesters in town for the convention — strangely, almost the same as the number of Greater Tampa’s homeless residents. Various news sources reported that 10-day vouchers would be available for the Good Samaritan Inn, yet when the owner of the inn was contacted, he told a confused tale of someone showing up with a voucher that was then rescinded by a county official, and no more had been seen since.

Technically, the homeless are allowed to be nowhere — their only acceptable posture is upright and in motion. A deputy gave a quotation about how it’s always somebody else’s property, whether it’s public property or not. There’s a very basic question here. Doesn’t public property belong to the people? Isn’t that what “public” means?

A woman who works with the homeless heard numerous stories of people being “run out” of downtown. When the reporter contacted the police department to confirm or deny, it had nothing to say. By August 28, Jason Cherkis was telling The Huffington Post:

The convention has cost the homeless not just regular sleeping spots and peace of mind. In some cases, it has cost them their belongings. The homeless used to squat near Trinity Cafe along the street. The police recently put a stop to it […] just prior to the convention, city garbage collectors showed up with a police escort. They moved down the street throwing away any belongings left unattended. In one instance […] a woman claimed her possessions but the city workers tossed them anyway.

Homeless people reported being chased to at least a mile away from the convention site. Parks were off-limits, and apparently, police warnings were spread the old-fashioned viral way, by regular speech. The word was going around: stay away, only sleep north of the overpass, don’t be caught walking around with a backpack. Everybody seemed to know somebody who had been charged with trespassing. According to the rumor, the police imported from other towns might be relatively soft, but the Tampa police would be ruthless.

But the next day, BBC reporter Daniel Nasaw related a mirror-image version of that story. A Tampa police spokesperson told him that the extra out-of-town police were the ones the homeless needed to be wary of, unfamiliar as they were with the city’s relatively lenient treatment of the homeless. (Seems like the strangers must have been given some kind of briefing before being turned loose on the streets of Tampa. Couldn’t that information have been included?) Nasaw wrote:

Secret Service and police have blocked off a swathe of downtown Tampa, set up check points, erected security fences, and otherwise disrupted the ordinary flow of pedestrian and automobile traffic. Security […] has created hassles for everyone who lives and works in the city. And for the city’s large homeless population, the convention presents a major disruption in an already tenuous existence.

Pastor Tom Atchison, the founder of homeless services organization New Beginnings, pointed out how millions had been spent by the city for law enforcement and security, while no provisions were made for the people experiencing homelessness, whose lives are already tough enough. Typical was homeless veteran Ernest Grandison, who told Nasaw that people were prevented from reaching soup kitchens and other necessary destinations, and that the security cordon downtown added an hour and a half to the walk to his usual Sunday breakfast church. He told the reporter:

Now, if you stop to rest on a bench, they pull up and say, ‘You need to leave’.

Reactions?

Source: “Downtown homeless get directions for how to cope with RNC,” Tamps Bay Times, 08/24/12
Source: “Tampa Homeless Say They’re Barred From RNC Convention Site,” The Huffington Post, 08/28/12
Source: “Tampa homeless ‘sidelined’ by Republican convention pomp,” BBC News, 08/29/12
Image by Azalia_N. (Azalia Negron).