January 7, 2009

MLK Library Shut to the Homeless

Marc Fisher and NBC Washington are both reporting that as of Feb. 1st, DC public libraries will no longer allow homeless residents to stay in the library during the day. As Fisher puts it:

D.C. libraries director Ginnie Cooper is courageously standing up against the advocates who fight for the homeless no matter what the impact of their behavior on other citizens. Cooper has announced new rules that, starting Feb. 1, will prohibit sleeping in the libraries or carrying more than two bags into any of the branches--rules obviously designed to discourage the homeless from camping out at tables where readers and researchers might want to work.

Yes. Beating up on a neglected section of the citizenry and the small troupe of advocates that attempt to help them takes Herculean courage. We have a lot of courageous people in this country.

Putting aside Fisher's juvenile rhetoric, we agree that a public library is not the ideal place for homeless residents to go. As former staff of a public library, I can say any person who comes into the library without the intent to research or learn is not using the resource for its intended purpose. I sympathize with the librarians who have the uncomfortable tasks of babysitter, hall monitor, and security guard to the swath of people who are shoved into libraries against their will (also including children and senior citizens). These are time-consuming tasks librarians have no formal training in that prevent them from doing the two things they're supposed to do: help patrons find materials and maintain the stacks.

But punishing homeless residents is absolutely wrong. Without providing any other solution or recourse, I wonder where the DC government expected people to go. What other space could homeless people use? DC has decided to close homeless shelters without a corresponding decrease in the homeless population. The remaining shelters push people out early in the morning despite inclement weather. DC has decided not to invest in day centers that would responsibly provide an alternative to libraries or park benches. DC has decided to continue to cut safety net services like housing that would also humanely get people off the streets (along with solving a number of other problems).

Instead of creating more obstacles for homeless people, and more arbitrary, incendiary rules to harass them, why not do the whole city a favor and fully fund the housing programs that have been set up and neglected? Blaming the homeless for using the library is like blaming a driver for using a broken parking meter. It makes no sense. The governing body that allows those situations to arise needs to be held responsible.


Delrica (pronounced del-REE-kuh) said...

Thank you for the blog, Matt! This is something I will definitely be following a bit more.

Greg Bloom said...

The DC government certainly needs to be more pro-active, responsive, and humane when it comes to homeless residents - that's something we've discussed at length on this blog. But when it fails to do that, we shouldn't fall back to the Library as a site on which to fight for human rights. Let's keep our issues straight here.

The library is responsible only to make sure that its services are accessible to all people. Here we library authorities are saying that the current situation, in which large numbers of people use the library as a shelter and not a library, compromises the ability for other people to use it as a library. Surely there is a balance to be found here - and it seems like Ms. Cooper might be overshooting it. But in order to defy Marc Fisher's claim that homeless advocates' arguments are short-sighted and destructive, we need to try to help identify the proper balance rather than protesting the very effort to find a balance in the first place.

For instance: closing the library windows so that people can't watch their belongings outside seems spiteful (to say nothing of damaging to the library's environment). On the other hand, breaking up tables so that large groups can't congregate seems reasonable (after all, libraries are just not supposed to be social). The sleeping issue is delicate: the Library shouldn't ban dozing, but a librarian should have the right to tell someone that they can't use a station as a bed.

Why not call upon the DC Library authorities to train their staff in ways to find this balance? Equip staff with information about homeless shelters, showers, etc. Call for library programs that can engage homeless people in training, education, arts, and resource access. Crisis management training. We could help the library solve its problem, and even help it become a part of the solution, rather than demanding that it passively accept the negative externalities caused by the City's much broader failure.

Matt Siemer said...


Well stated. Your suggestions would be reasonable and compassionate responses to engage the homeless population instead of treating them like an invading force that must be repulsed.

I also agree we should keep the issues straight. No one is falling back on the library, but if homelessness is ever going to be addressed there needs to be an understanding that situations like this one--where library officials are targeting specific groups of people for discrimination--could have easily been avoided by providing an alternate space for homeless residents to use.

In order for librarians to be able to direct homeless residents to "homeless shelters" and other resources, the resources need to exist. Balance is great, but the sort of balance you would like to see is only possible if both parties are working in good faith toward a solution. That isn't happening here.

Kathryn Baer said...

No one, I think, would argue that libraries should substitute for safe, decent places homeless people can stay during the long, sometimes very cold or hot daytime hours when emergency shelters are closed. However, as you say, the problem isn't really homeless people in libraries, it's homeless in our community.

I've taken basically this same position on my blog (povertyandpolicy.wordpress.com). However, as my posting points out, the proposed D.C. public library rules wouldn't just deter homeless people from using libraries as day shelters. It would also prevent them going to libraries to read or use the public computers—to look for a job, for example. And it's far from clear that the proposed rules stem principally from burdens on librarians. Marc Fischer's blog posting and a recent report by the Friends of the West End Library indicate otherwise.

Of course, there's a balance to be struck. But I think any rules should focus specifically on behaviors that interfere with patrons' ability to read, do research, etc. Some of the proposed rules do. Other's are clearly targeted to keep homeless people out.

The proposed rules are not a foregone conclusion. The public has an opportunity to comment by writing the Office of Human Rights, Office of the General Counsel, 441 4th Street, NW, Suite 570N, Washington, D.C. 20001, no later than January 19.