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After Katrina, Keeping Up Appearances, and More

“Katrina: One Year Later” offers an archive of articles assembled by The Times- Picayune in New Orleans. The site features reporting from last year’s catastrophe, current analysis of rebuilding efforts, photos, and stories of the storm’s victims. A related site, Katrina’s Lives Lost, contains tributes and obituaries:

Joan died Aug. 31, the day after the floodwater rose. “It was probably about 105 degrees in the attic,” her sister Gerry said. “The man at St. Gabriel (morgue) said it appears that she died of hyperthermia. It got too hot; she was exhausted by it.” [Her husband] Don stayed in the house another three or four days, until he saw a neighbor’s son going by in a paddleboat, Gerry said. “Don came to the front door and said, ‘Get me some help. My wife is in here and she’s dead. Please get the Coast Guard to come get her.’” Workers lifted Joan’s body out of the attic on Sept. 17.

Adolph Reed Jr., whose many family members reside in New Orleans, writes a scathing critique of the disaster, “When Government Shrugs: Lessons of Katrina” via AlterNet:

The fetish of “efficient” government—code for public policy that is designed to serve the narrow interests of business and the affluent—is the ultimate cause of the city’s devastation. Remember that the city survived the hurricane. It flooded because the levees failed. The levees on the 17th Street and London Avenue canals failed because, in the words of the Independent Levee Investigation Team, “safety was exchanged for efficiency and reduced costs.” This was the result of federal underfunding, the Corps of Engineers’ skimping, state and local officials’ temporizing, and a lack of adequate government oversight—or, in neoliberal parlance, cutting government red tape.

Jill Leovy, of the LA Times, profiles the security staff at Los Angeles Central Library in “By the Book, With Footnotes” (Aug. 13, 2006). Like most mainstream reporting on homeless people in libraries, the article does not mention if the library is working in any capacity with local social-service agencies or advocating for day-shelter funding. One photo caption is particularly ironic: “Keeping up appearances is part of the unwritten code that lets different people mix comfortably in the library.”

“Some patrons will say, ‘Isn’t there any way to keep these homeless out of the building? They are so dirty,’ etc., etc.,” [Security Officer William] Morris said. In response to such queries, “I try not to be sarcastic,” he said. But he thinks, “I’d rather have them than you.” Many library staff have similar, complicated views. They complain about regulars—“a vortex of madness,” one called the situation—then defend them in the next breath. They are protective of the library atmosphere but even more protective of the principle of access. In fact, whatever the rules are on paper, it’s clear that library security officers essentially enforce what one librarian called “almost a compromise” between staff and the homeless.

Earlier this year, Springfield, Ill., city alderman Joe Bartolomucci proposed banning homeless people from the Lincoln Library plaza. Mayor Tim Davlin refused to support the proposal. The State Journal-Register interviewed some of the homeless individuals who use the library and sleep outside:

“People wonder how you end up in this situation and what can be done to help it,” [Tim Hawker] said last week … his back against the brick wall near the south doors of the main library, Seventh Street and Capitol Avenue. “People say ‘get a job’—but getting employment is more than just getting a job. To get employment, you have to have transportation, a phone number, somewhere to put your things … How do you get here? You’re single. You work minimum wage. You live at a poverty level, and you can’t save any money. So there’s no net to fall in when something happens. And down you fall again.” ... Most of those who stay at the library actually are avid readers, Hawker said.

Despite repeated e-mails to ALA staff members, a Web page titled “America’s Libraries and the Homeless” remains buried in the ALA site. We’d like to see this page included in the links list under “PIO Fact Sheets.” The document offers examples of how

[m]any librarians play a leadership role in addressing the problem of homelessness in their communities by working in cooperation with other agencies and by providing direct services such as special reading collections in shelters for the homeless, literacy programs and information and referral services.

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