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The Shelter of the Library

This commentary was originally published by Michael McGrorty at Library Dust (November 29, 2004). It is reprinted here with his permission.

In his book Tell Them Who I Am, sociologist Elliot Liebow assembles an archive of testimony, rendering homeless women in simple, natural colors that speak the harsh details of that precarious existence. The lives of the homeless, Liebow shows, are a search within an escape: a seeking for shelter and safety in the chaos of perpetual flight. He depicts homelessness as a sort of refugee life with its denizens as exiles from ordinary society and often enough from their better selves. The book is plain and honest, written as a man would write who knew his task and that he had not long to live or work: Liebow died of cancer the year after its release.

Reading Liebow’s book one becomes aware of the huge spaces of dead time the homeless must fill, even those fortunate enough to have access to a bed after dark. Much of the time they simply have nothing to do but kill the hours of the day. Being homeless is a dangerous occupation and there aren’t many safe places to hide from its perils. One of the few is the public library.

Homelessness is a term of summation: it describes the last phase of a variety of disorders, more often than not existing in combination. Homelessness is a result, an outcome. When you see a homeless man or woman in your library you are looking at a human being like any other patron, but one who runs a gauntlet of calamities. Everybody comes to the library for something, but the homeless come seeking the most essential thing—survival, a safe place to preserve themselves until their next battle with the streets.

Liebow’s women are shown the door of their shelters after breakfast. Those without jobs often gravitate to the library, which will not surprise anybody who has ever worked in a downtown branch. In many towns the public library has become a day-care center for homeless people. Because of what these special patrons bring with them, they present a difficulty for the library that is like no other.

There are three parts to the problem of homeless library patrons, only one of which is addressed to any substantial degree. The homeless themselves are inspected, monitored, regulated to the extent possible and policed out when they do not conform to regulations. All of this is a distraction (and an expensive one) from the other duties of the library staff.

I think it is a shame that the library in many urban centers is seen as a day shelter. That’s a burden that the library was never set up to be—a burden in the sense of an added layer of responsibility that the librarians were not trained for, that the library was not intended to be.

Nancy Pearl

The second part of the homeless problem is less obvious but more significant in terms of impact. Homeless patrons in any concentration drive other patrons away. Nobody wants to search for a book in a mental hospital, or share a restroom with a filthy person performing his ablutions. For that matter, nobody wants to bring children to a building of loafing drunks and addicts. Even when the homeless are quiet, they are visible; frightening and annoying presences to many library patrons. Even if librarians make allowances, extend themselves in kindness and understanding, patrons may not—and they will vote with their feet.

The library, like many another public place, depends for its functioning upon the cooperation of its users. The homeless often seek things that the library was never intended to provide, and their needs force them to break rules oftener than others. All of this drives the public away from libraries frequented by the homeless. The facility fails its public, not out of any lack of desire or effort but because it has become something it was never intended to be: a shelter for the homeless and their attendant difficulties.

Most recently, we have noted the effects of this usage on our donor population. Many prospective donors are reluctant to give money to support a Central Library that they perceive as a day facility for the homeless. Many donors indicate that they do not feel safe visiting the Central Library or that the Central Library smells of people who have not bathed in some time.

Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, writing to Councilmember Nick Licata

The third part of the problem is how the homeless affect the staffs of public libraries. A few months ago I wrote a report on a large downtown public library which had combined with a university facility. I was surprised to receive notes from university librarians who were bitter about the change, stating plainly that they had chosen to work in a college library because it did not permit the entry of homeless patrons. My own experience working in libraries has been that many workers bear a strong dislike for situations involving the homeless, which dislike is born of experience rather than conjecture.

Liebow writes,

Fear in all its forms stands out. It seems to take the shape of a giant circle of mutuality: the shelter staff and other providers are afraid of the homeless and the homeless are afraid of the staff; the citizen on the street, the merchant, the householder, and whole communities fear the homeless, and the homeless fear the non-homeless citizens. And to complete the circle, the homeless are afraid of the homeless. Thus, everyone is afraid of the homeless, including the homeless themselves, and what is so terrible and intractable about this situation is that everyone is right to be afraid.

Many public libraries have undertaken measures to reduce the problems that come with serving a large homeless population. One example: Tacoma’s public library restricts patrons to possession of belongings that will fit beneath a seat or measure 18 by 16 by 10 inches—rather like the carry-on luggage rules enforced by commercial airlines.

Public libraries walk a thin line in their dealings with homeless patrons. Policies must be established and enforced fairly, and for good reason. Simply being homeless, unattractive or relatively dirty may not be enough to justify removal.

A public library has enacted a regulation which is admittedly aimed at barring a particular homeless person from its premises because his presence and appearance are considered offensive to others. The danger in excluding anyone from a public building because their appearance or hygiene is obnoxious to others is self-evident. The danger becomes insidious if the conditions complained of are born of poverty.

The public library is one of our great symbols of democracy. It is a living embodiment of the First Amendment because it includes voices of dissent. It tolerates that which is offensive. The library of today frequently provides not only access to books, newspapers, and magazines, but also to concerts, lectures, and exhibits. It is a source of fact and fiction.

One cannot dispute the right and obligation of the library trustees to assure that the library is used for the general purposes for which it is intended. Libraries cannot and should not be transformed into hotels or kitchens, even for the needy. The public has the right to designate which of its institutions shall be utilized for particular purposes.

However, in establishing regulations for use, the conditions imposed must be specific, their purposes necessary, and their effects neutral. Likewise, enforcement cannot be left to the whim or personal vagaries of the persons in charge.

– From the opinion, Richard R. Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown (PDF), 958 F.2d 1242, 1259 (3d Cir. 1992)

This much is clear:

The homeless are not going to disappear from public libraries, and they are not likely to enter in any different condition than they have in the past.

The issue of homelessness will continue, at least in the short term, to be addressed in terms of the behavior of individuals in a given setting, as the clash of personal rights versus institutional rules. This approach, perhaps the least productive of any, is characteristic of the early stages in the development of wage and hour law, the legal recognition of trade unions, in the fight for women’s suffrage, and in the voting and general civil rights of racial minorities. This approach guarantees a perpetual stream of battles over the interpretation of local standards against the background of the Constitution and state law, with change occurring through a slow trickle of court decisions over time.

In most other areas of civil rights progress, society sped up this process by pulling the judiciary toward the conviction of the masses. The people have yet to express a widespread view that homelessness constitutes a form of acceptable identity or that its membership is deserving of any special status under the law. In that sense society seems to recognize that the homeless are not so much a class as a collection, a subset of the poor, another group which the nation has yet to favor with the designation of a protected class. In a strange and unfortunate twist, the homeless are considered a group for exclusion and dismissal, and as individuals when they seek rights in society. The result is that they suffer from a lethal anonymity until they challenge the system, at which time they face the machinery of the state and its laws alone.

Even so, there are hints of change:

[Plaintiffs] contend that the city applies these laws to homeless individuals as part of a custom and practice of driving the homeless from public places … they ask that the City be enjoined from arresting homeless individuals for inoffensive conduct, such as sleeping or bathing, that they are forced to perform in public …

... the City’s practice of arresting homeless individuals for performing essential, life-sustaining acts in public when they have absolutely no place to go effectively infringes on their fundamental right to travel in violation of the equal protection clause.

From the decision, Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551 (SD Fla. 1992)

It is significant that the court observed,

Plaintiffs claim that they are a suspect class based on their involuntary status of being homeless. They argue that, because there are only two types of property in this country, public and private, and because the homeless have no access to private property, they are an insular minority which has no place to retreat from the public domain.

While sidestepping the issue, the court in Pottinger nevertheless offered:

It can be argued that the homeless are saddled with such disabilities, or have been subjected to a history of unequal treatment or are so politically powerless that extraordinary protection of the homeless as a class is warranted.

Though the class status of homelessness is merely a proposition now, a look at the legal history of the country suggests it may become a basis for rights litigation in the future.

Meanwhile, down on the ground in the light of day, the homeless drift into libraries at opening time; many separate worlds come together, sometimes uneasily, but we make of it what we can. In the evening, some of the luckier ones will turn back to the relative safety of the shelters, to pass away the hours until their next run of the gauntlet.

See also: Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow’s pioneering study of black street corner culture.

Michael McGrorty
November 29, 2004

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