0

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.