What’s a Library to Do? On Homelessness and Public Spaces

October 16, 2017 | 4 9 min read
The Central Library building in downtown St. Louis.

1.
Russell had a long beard that at least one librarian likened to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. Every day he showed up to the Central Library building in downtown St. Louis, and because he always wore the same clothes, bearing the logo of the city’s former NFL team, the staff privately nicknamed him “Rams Jacket.” It was increasingly becoming a problem that hundreds of people like Russell, who spent their nights at the homeless shelter across the street, would spend their days in the library. But Russell was, according to one librarian who worked at Central at the time, “the most regular of the regulars.”

He always sat in the exact same room, at the same table, in the same chair. He usually read quietly, and when not reading, he napped sitting with the book propped up in front of him. He was in many ways the ideal library patron. However, Russell slept at a shelter where a different person used every bed each night, the linens changed only once a week. He became afflicted with bed bugs. He suffered from painful, suppurating sores.

Homeless people spending time in and around public libraries are nothing unusual in metropolitan areas. It has been written about before, widely. But at this central library in St. Louis, the city system’s crown jewel, a conundrum that exists all over the country was heightened to a rare degree. A library is supposed to be a place for all people. But how does the library keep its doors open to all?

The New Life Evangelistic Center, where Russell slept, was a controversial homeless shelter. Run by a reverend and sometimes-third party mayoral candidate named Larry Rice, the shelter took in as many as 300 people every night, and every morning at six, these people were told to leave for the day. No one denied Rice provided people in need a place to sleep, but critics say he offered very little else in terms of rehabilitation, mental health, or employment counseling. A cross emblazoned on the side of the NLEC is so large it spans nearly two of the building’s five stories.

The New Life Evangelistic Center.

Across the street, however, the Central Library where Russell spent his days had undergone a $70 million renovation. Its floors perfectly reflect the sunlight shining in through massive stained glass windows. Frescoes adorn the high ceilings. Footsteps and low voices echo in exactly the right hallowed way. The building itself is more than a century old, designed by the architect of the Woolworth building in Manhattan with construction funded by Andrew Carnegie. Canonical names are etched around the rim of its granite exterior: Goethe, Milton, Racine.

Between the Central Library and the NLEC sits tiny Lucas Gardens Park, where many people who slept the previous night in the shelter waited out the days. If you’d visited the area as recently as this spring you would have noticed the crowd congregated there, people who seemed to have everything they own clutched in their hand or stored in bags at their feet. At times there were so many people in the park that it looked as if an event were about to begin.

Unable to use the NLEC’s facilities during the day, many of its residents used the library’s bathrooms, water fountains, and air conditioning, which meant that, according to one former librarian, the Central Library was a “de facto day shelter with hundreds of people.”

A series of Board of Public Service hearings were held to determine if the NLEC was a detriment to its neighborhood, and at these hearings representatives from Central testified that it was common in the library’s Great Hall for every chair to be occupied by someone experiencing homelessness. This deterred research, fewer people checked out books, and parents were hesitant to bring their children. The library’s executive director testified that Central Library was more and more, “used not as a public library but as a shelter, a place to keep warm, a place to keep cool, a place to sit, a place to meet.” Due to the volume of people outside, some library staff were escorted to and from their cars at the beginning and end of their shifts. Representatives from the library stated that Central employed a full-time custodian whose entire job was to, “constantly walk the perimeter of the building, cleaning up large amounts of blankets, clothing, food containers and trash, as well as urine, feces, vomit, and drug paraphernalia.” This custodian removed human feces “virtually every day.”

Yet in February of this year, the NLEC organized a press conference at which half a dozen people who used NLEC services spoke out against the Central Library. From the local CBS affiliate’s coverage of the press conference:

“I go in there to do job searches. Sometimes they’ll say, ‘Well, all of our computers is booked up for now. Come back later,’” Brian Foster says. “So when I come back later, it’s always ‘Come back, come back.’”

Others claim they have been asked to leave because they smell or look homeless.

“If you smell or you look like you haven’t changed your clothes and you truly are homeless on the street, they will not let you in,” Megan Ferguson says. “The police will put you out. There’s actual police in there that will put you out.”

Eric Lundgren, a former librarian at Central who told me about Russell, said that while he was at the library he felt having a social worker on staff would have been a big step in the right direction. In theory, a social worker could not only have worked with library patrons, but also trained library staff in how to best help those patrons in distress or in need of social service-type assistance. When I asked a librarian working behind the front desk if he and his coworkers received any such training, he referred me to the library’s PR representative. When I put the question to them, they never replied.

Lundgren himself had eventually spoken with Russell and asked if he had somewhere he could go for medical and hygiene help. During the interaction, Russell was coherent, non-confrontational, and cool. The next time he came into the library his head was shaved, he was clean, wearing a new white T-shirt and red sweat pants.

But soon after that, Russell stopped showing up. Another regular from the NLEC said that one night Russell arrived at the shelter for the evening check in and was “completely terrified.” He’d urinated on himself. He was turned away that night, and no one there had seen him since.

Lundgren told me that for him Russell’s story epitomized his feelings about both his own (former) employer and the shelter next door. “There was a big $70 million investment in the renovation,” he said. “And certainly some of the library’s leadership felt that NLEC folks were discouraging other patrons from visiting, bringing their kids downtown. This is a real concern. Central Library is a stunning building, a shared asset that everyone should be able to enjoy safely. It’s an extremely difficult and complex problem, balancing the safety of the library on the one hand with the acknowledgment on the other that the homeless and marginalized are real patrons, too.”

As for the shelter next door, he added: “The NLEC seemed that they were willing to provide beds and shelter for a lot of people. They imposed a surface religiosity on them, but when it came to the deeper, more difficult problem of actually caring for them and helping them out of their predicament, they really fell short.”

The NLEC didn’t have a social worker on staff. They provided little if anything by way of job training and had no system in place to connect people to long-term housing A person in need of a place to sleep could stay for only fourteen nights, and, according to a St. Louis Magazine profile of Rice, the shelter allowed people to exchange labor for room and board beyond those two weeks. Those who opted for these extended stays and who were receiving government benefits were asked to forfeit a portion of that money to the NLEC. The story described people who stayed at the NLEC later testifying against it, saying they had possessions stolen while there, that they witnessed drug dealing within the building. The library’s executive director testified alongside them, saying the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood. These hearings happened in 2013, and the shelter’s hotel license wasn’t revoked until 2015. At that time, according to a St. Louis City press release, the NLEC began operating, “without any permit of any kind to occupy the property.”

It wasn’t until April of this year that the NLEC’s hotel license was revoked for the final time, effectively ending its shelter services. Four years between the 2013 hearing and the shelter’s closing, and in that time hundreds of people were going from the shelter to the library and back again every day. A $70 million library. A converted, five story YWCA with 300 beds. For those dividing their time between the two, the library and the NLEC must have seemed in many ways considerably less than the sum of their parts.

2.
Faye Abram, a social work professor recently retired from St. Louis University, says that it helps to bear in mind that even though homeless people don’t have a home, they still have a home base. In this particular case, she says, the Central Library didn’t attract the homeless so much as it was located within the community of the homeless. The NLEC was next door, and about five blocks north is a Catholic Charity-run center offering support for people experiencing homelessness. Resources for utility assistance and pro bono legal services are also within a few blocks. “The library was part of their community,” Abram said. “And the library because of its generally open policies and liberal hours was like a safe space.”

Abram, who was asked to testify at the hearings related to the NLEC, says she never perceived the Central Library as an institution asking itself what it should do to be more responsive to the needs of homeless people in the area. But, she said, she isn’t sure that is a fair burden to put on the library. It’s asking the library to do more than what libraries are typically asked to do.

“The library had some legitimate concerns,” Abram said. “There was undo pressure on it with the overflow that was coming from the NLEC. But the only thing that’s going to relieve that pressure and allow homeless patrons to use the library as it should be used is to allow them to be able to have other spaces where they can shower and sleep and change clothes. It doesn’t help to close down a place like the NLEC; if anything it puts more pressure on the library.”

In general, Abram says, closing a shelter is only going to relocate the problem rather than mend it. St. Louis’s total homeless population numbers near 1,800, and shutting down the NLEC as a shelter only shifts the hundreds of people who slept there to different communities elsewhere. Absent a systemic remedy, Abram said, “You can take care of the problem in one place, but it’s just going to crop up somewhere else.”

On a recent summer morning the Lucas Gardens Park was nearly empty. On the front steps of Central, a public safety officer who works the library beat told me that the area has gotten a little “better” after the NLEC’s closure. Still he said he sees more “craziness” in one day than other people in his line of work see in a 40-hour week. People offer each other drugs in the library bathroom. Another morning, I spoke to a young man about a block away who said he stayed in the area. I asked him if he ever used the library. “You got an ID?” he asked. I nodded. “Then they’ll let you use a computer,” he said. “They’re cool.”

3.
So what is a library to do?

coverAccording to Nicole Cooke, author of Information Services to Diverse Populations: Developing Culturally Competent Library Professionals, more and more libraries, particularly ones in large well-funded systems, are adding social workers to their staff. Cooke, who teaches future librarians as a professor in the University of Illinois library science program, says that social work and librarianship are both “very public facing and service-oriented professions.” However there are fundamental differences between the two, and communities can’t assign to librarians all that social workers are tasked to do.

“But the key,” Cooke said, “is to figure out how make that a little more institutionalized, to make it the rule rather than the exception.”

Cooke pointed to libraries in San Francisco that have coordinated with a mobile shower facility that parks outside various branch locations, which provide the necessary water hook up. Abram mentioned that some libraries allow people moving into areas to use the local branch address as their home address until they are settled. At a library in Philadelphia, librarians have been trained to administer Narcan in the case that someone in or near the library overdoses on opioids. In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a reporter chronicled the story of one librarian who helped save the lives of three overdose victims in as many shifts.

“But my students and I talk a lot about being ready, willing, and able to serve all patrons in librarianship,” Cooke said. “A library at any given time could have multiple diverse marginalized populations, including homeless patrons, and it becomes challenging to prioritize and really adequately serve all of them.”

In St. Louis, before the NLEC closed, it may have seemed like that shelter and the Central Library were in opposition. Rice organized a press conference against the library. Library representatives testified at a city hearing that the shelter was a detriment to the neighborhood. But framing the story as an institutional squabble misses the bigger picture in which, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless, nearly one out of every 100 Americans will spend a night out on the streets this year. Both the library and the NLEC helped the homeless in their own—sometimes highly flawed—ways. It’s easy to ask why they fell short, but why was it left to them in the first place?

Photos courtesy of the author.

teaches at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. His writing has appeared in Third Coast, The Rumpus, Hobart (online), The Millions, The Brooklyn Rail, december magazine and elsewhere.

4 comments:

  1. As a former librarian, I’d like to thank you for this gentle (I mean that as a compliment), insightful article. I went to public libraries from academic libraries and was shocked at the change in atmosphere–what it truly means to be open to all. Any solutions to these issues need to come from several different areas–as pointed out, more community resources for the homeless, but also more training and more resources for library staff. I know it’s important to restore historical buildings too but I can’t help but wonder if a very, very small percentage of that 70 mil couldn’t have paid for a social worker salary (or even a bump up in pay for the custodial worker, because, holy cow, that’s a thankless job).

  2. Libraries, especially in central cities where other social services tend to be concentrated, have always served this function. But they should not be bearing the load by themselves.

    In the past decade or so, the numbers of library patrons experiencing homelessness have likely increased, in part because more people face housing issues, but also because having access to a computer is an essential requirement in so many facets of life.

    Having a safe place to go during the day is a basic human need. Most of us don’t even have to think about it, but for the marginalized and unsheltered, it is a constant challenge.

    Communities best address the issues outlined in the article by collaboratively involving housing officials, law enforcement, social services, health care, communities of faith and regular citizens. Hooray for the librarians who, with training or not, exemplify compassion and democratic principles every day.

  3. I just realized how we can solve the homelessness problem in the Bay Area:

    1: Multiply the public library budget by a factor of 100,000.
    2: Build longterm residency units inside the libraries that currently exist, and build some more libraries that also have units in them.
    3: Invite the homeless to live in these units at the State’s expense. Sue and boycott all states that have former citizens living homeless in CA for the cost of this aid.
    4: Staff the library with doctors, nurses, psychiatrists, etc.
    5: Gradually remove most of the books, to make more space for treatment facilities.
    6: Lock the doors to protect the formerly homeless from street violence and from being preyed upon by drug dealers in the Tenderloin. Give them adequate inpatient medical, mental and drug addiction treatment until they’re ready to be re-integrated into society in a careful, controlled manner.

    Done.

  4. My mom was a librarian. Compassion ruled. Let them rest. I worked for cops. Tim Hortons overnight. No complaints from staff, let them rest. Mental illness = no money. Our world is fucked when hard liners and cruelty rule.

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