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

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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.”

The Central Library building in downtown St. Louis.

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.

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.”

So what is a library to do?

According 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?

Image credit: Pexels/Polina Zimmerman.

Borges, Burgin, and Infinity

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The first thing you notice is the books. They line the walls of Richard Burgin’s house. His large foyer is uncluttered and, one gets the sense, rarely used. But just beyond that is a room with a large desk against one wall, a piano against the other. Stacks spill over from all sides of the bookshelves: a Japanese translation of one of Burgin’s books, a candid photo of Isaac Bashevis Singer, a poster in French for a reading Burgin gave in Paris in 2011. This is all evidence of an eclectic, accomplished life.

The life is also an eccentric one. Burgin, who has authored nineteen books, does not use a computer. Every few weeks an assistant takes his spiral notebooks of prose and types them into word documents. He’s never learned to drive a car. He’s intrigued by technology but not adept at its use. He occasionally has to call his assistant and ask that she log into his NetZero account and read him his emails remotely. Back in his 20s in New York, he once invited his literary friends to an apartment party but on the day of the gathering a romantic entanglement in Boston caused him to miss his flight home. He called a neighbor who had a spare key to his apartment and asked him to leave the door open. Burgin later heard his party had been a hit.

Ask Burgin when his life in letters began, and he’ll tell you that an early pivotal moment was as an undergraduate in a Spanish class at Brandeis University when he was assigned “The Aleph” by Jorge Luis Borges. This was 1967. Borges was read widely in Latin America and Europe, but much of what would make him famous in the United States was not yet widely available in English.

“The Aleph” rearranged Burgin’s conscious the way a grenade could be said to rearrange a room. The story, like most of Borges’ work, is fantastical. Its protagonist seeks to write a poem that describes every square inch of the entire planet down to the minutest detail. To do this he utilizes an object called the Aleph, through which he can see everywhere at once. Even if one were able to experience the infinite, the story posits, it would be impossible to convey this experience to another human. Infinity is therefore linked to isolation, and it was this perspective on infinity that most fascinated Burgin. Within weeks he’d read everything else Borges had written that had been translated to English. He considered Borges a literary god. This reaction to Borges had everything to do with the fact that Burgin, only twenty, had already been contemplating the idea of infinity for several years.

Burgin’s parents were both child music prodigies. His mother, Ruth Posselt, was a violin soloist and his father (also Richard) served as concertmaster for 42 years for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Burgin’s father used to tell his son that art is the last illusion. He said that artists who acted as if their work would be remembered after their death were fooling themselves. Maybe someone’s work would last a hundred years but not five hundred, not a millennium. It won’t last forever. Artists delude themselves about the impermanence and importance of their work. What artists make isn’t going to endure. It’s not the usual fodder of father-son chats, but Burgin’s father was nothing if not a serious man. And Burgin felt his father had a point. He’d always been a voracious reader and, even as a young man, it irked him that this fundamental truth of artistic mortality went unacknowledged in fiction. The avoidance of the topic seemed proof that art was, as his father said, all based on a lie. Burgin came to think of this as the conundrum of infinity.

Then Borges appeared. Finally, Burgin thought, someone writing about the conundrum, rather than writing around it.

Then, while Burgin was still an undergraduate, Borges accepted the Charles Eliot Norton Professorship at Harvard, which was only a twenty-minute drive from Brandeis. Upon hearing the news, Burgin was so ecstatic that he ran without stopping all the way from Harvard Square to his student housing in Central Square a mile away. It was a spring day, the warming weather lent itself well to optimism. He’d spend the summer preparing for Borges’ arrival.

“These were the days when people still listed their numbers,” Burgin says. “Writers, even famous ones, didn’t hide behind answering machines and caller ID.”

As part of the Harvard fellowship, Borges would give six public lectures in Boston — but Burgin wasn’t content to be only a spectator. He called Borges one afternoon and though Burgin’s memory of that initial conversation is clouded by the excitement he felt at the time, whatever introduction he made worked. He and Borges set a date for a drink.

Burgin first laid eyes on the man through a window on the ground floor of the building where Borges was staying. The 67-year-old was being helped into an elevator. He walked with a cane. But despite his age and being nearly completely blind, Borges exuded an easy gravitas. His genius was palpable. He put those around him at ease. As a gift that first meeting Burgin brought a vinyl recording of Bach’s fourth and fifth Brandenburg concertos on which his father played violin. Burgin wrote about this first meeting: “[Borges] always makes you feel that it is he who is the grateful one, and that your company is the only gift he needs.”

What blossomed that first meeting wasn’t a friendship, per se, but Burgin was invited back. For the second meeting he brought a reel-to-reel tape recorder, hoping to save some of Borges’s words and create an audio souvenir. The second meeting went as well as the first. The two men discussed Borges’s stories, of which Burgin had a near encyclopedic knowledge. Back at his apartment, listening to the tapes, Burgin realized that Borges’ words, even in casual conversation, were art.

The realization led Burgin to subsequent meetings, which he again recorded. Burgin transcribed by hand the interviews and compiled them into a book, Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, published in 1969. The book runs 150 pages and covers Borges’ thoughts on a host of writers, from Henry James to Kafka to Sartre. He discusses the bombing of Hiroshima and the Nazis. He talks with Burgin about the problem of time and, of course, infinity.

The timing of Conversations could not have been better. More of Borges’ works were becoming available in English. Literary Americans were becoming Borges fanatics and regarded Burgin’s book as an important contribution to the understanding of this new preeminent voice in world literature. Borges is accessible, but he is also an endless riddle. Reading Borges tends to begat reading more Borges which eventually leads to reading about him in hopes of finding something that will explain the mind from where it all comes. At the time of its publication, Burgin’s book was practically the only book in English about the Argentinian. It sold well for a book of its kind. It was reviewed positively in Harper’s and The New Yorker and many other outlets. The New York Times ran two pieces on it, one in the daily and the other in the Sunday book review. In 1969, Burgin was only 21, less than a year out of college.

“I thought it would always be that easy,” Burgin says. His next book would take him fifteen years.

After Boston, Burgin lived in New York before moving to Philadelphia, where he taught at Drexel University. At Drexel he founded Boulevard, an internationally distributed literary magazine currently in its thirty-second year of publication. John Updike, John Ashberry and Singer were in early issues, Joyce Carol Oates in its most recent. Former U.S. Poet laureates Charles Simic and Billy Collins are frequent contributors. In 1996, the magazine moved from Philadelphia to St. Louis when Burgin took a teaching job at St. Louis University. Ranking literary magazines is a fickle business, but on most lists of journals Boulevard can typically be found somewhere in the top twenty.

Fifteen years after Conversations with Jorge Luis Borges, Burgin published his second book, also a book of interviews. This time they were with Singer, who had won the Nobel Prize several years earlier. Burgin’s first book of short fiction, Man Without Memory, came out later in the eighties, and the nineties saw two more collections and a novel. He’s published steadily since. Several of his stories have won prizes. He composed music prolifically. His career is a success by any reasonable measure.

Still, if you talk to him long enough he’ll mention that none of his books were ever picked up by a big New York publishing house, that innovations in individual stories were never recognized by the literary establishment. None of his books of fiction got the attention that the Borges book did. But, he says with a smile, “I’ve never met a writer who feels like he or she got as much as they deserved.”

You get the sense that this lack of recognition gnaws on him, that ambition can turn in on itself and become something like bitterness. However, it needs to be said that this is an aspect of his personality that will only reveal itself if you talk to him over the course of several weeks for several hours at a time. If you talk to him for just a few minutes, he’s going to tell you about his son.

Burgin, like his father before, talks to his own son about how an artist should regard infinity and the impermanence of what they make. These conversations aren’t purely academic. Burgin’s son (who goes by Ricky) is a budding filmmaker. In the fall of 2016 the two of them adapted Richard’s story “Do You Like this Room?” into a short film titled All Ears. The story concerns a man and a woman after their second date, back at the man’s house. The woman is a therapist and the man could be easily categorized as someone in desperate need of therapy. He suggests they play “the god game,” in which one person plays the part of god and the other plays the fearful believer. The conversation quickly turns dark and then the action does too. Richard worked with his son in adapting the story into a script and at one point in the writing process the younger Burgin crossed out half the dialogue his father had written. Richard responded by telling his son, “I think you’re extremely talented and I have no doubt your talent will one day eclipse mine. But I’ve published nineteen books and you’re 19 years old. Do you really think you write better dialogue than me?”

“Yes,” his son replied. “I do.”

All Ears has been received favorably thus far. Ricky has submitted it to festivals and it’s currently viewable on YouTube. The 16-minute film is solid work for a filmmaker of any age, but it’s especially accomplished given the project was helmed by a college sophomore. Ricky recruited the entire cast and used his father’s house as a shooting location. He designed the sets and transformed his father’s unused foyer into a troubled man’s bachelor pad. He hung lights, storyboarded and blocked shots.

The first day of filming came. The man and woman leads arrived along with the film’s small crew. Richard disappeared. He wanted to give his son space to direct, though he couldn’t resist eavesdropping. He listened through a wall as his son gave measured, astute feedback. The set was filled with actors and professionals who were all in their late twenties and early thirties, but it was the nineteen-year-old who owned the room for the ten hours of shooting that day.

Burgin’s face glowed as he recounted this later. “He was so frighteningly good,” he said. “I could never have done that, had that confidence at his age. I was stunned.”

And when he talks to his son about the conundrum of infinity?

“He says it makes his head hurt. He asks me why anyone would waste their time with such an idea when there’s so much work to do.”