D.C. Libraries: Homeless Shelters No More?
Among all the troubles that plague Washington's libraries, the #1 reason many people steer clear of the places is that they have been permitted to become de facto day centers for the homeless, many of whom find the libraries a convenient and all too welcoming places to get warm, sleep and pass the hours before their next treacherous night on the streets.
Now, 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.
"The homeless population's use of the library is a deterrent to greater use by other patrons," according to a report by the Friends of the West End Library, one of the more active groups of library users in the city. "The consistent use of the branch as a day center by the downtown homeless population, not unique to the West End, is a major deterrent to other patrons wishing to use the branch."
Now, the library system is moving to ease the burden of having street people dominate the seats at many branches. Cooper, of course, denies that the new rules are intended to keep the homeless out--she says everyone is allowed in the libraries and all she seeks to accomplish is to make the system more welcoming for all. But let's be real--there are so many street people camping out in the libraries that many parents wouldn't dream of letting their kids wander in to hang out, and many adults are frightened enough that they find other places to get their research and reading done.
At the West End branch, managers have tried other ways to make the place less of a home for the homeless--closing the blinds so the homeless can't keep an eye on their belongings that they leave outside, rearranging chairs and tables so the homeless can't gather in groups inside. But nothing has worked.
The new plan is not entirely original. In New York City, the library system started requiring patrons to have a library card before they'd be permitted to use computers in branches--a good way to make it harder for street people to take control of the computer terminals. And some other communities have set rules prohibiting people from coming into the library if their body odor offends other patrons.
But the District has firsthand experience with courts that frown on any such restrictions. In 2001, federal judge Emmet Sullivan stomped all over the District's library for imposing rules that excluded people because of their "objectionable appearance." Sullivan ruled that the city's libraries have no right to block people from coming in because of how they look. Such rules, he said, were "amorphous..., unfettered, subjective...imprecise..., vague and overbroad" and just plain unconstitutional. He really, really didn't like them.
Advocates for the homeless don't like such restrictions either, because they see such rules as a denial of the real problems that street people face. It's "time to realize that removing homeless people from the library is only going to force them to move elsewhere," writes homeless advocate Shannon Moriarty.
But librarians who want to recapture control of their facilities aren't denying the plight of the homeless; rather, they join the advocates in calling for the government to do right by the homeless and provide them with proper housing and medical and counseling aid. Housing them by day in the libraries and then forcing them onto the streets at night is hardly a humane solution.
D.C. residents deserve to have libraries that are safe, clean and well-stocked. It shouldn't be left to librarians to set our policies on the homeless, but when politicians and administrators default on their responsibilities and take advantage of libraries as a way to keep street people out of sight during business hours, libraries should fight back--and that's what Cooper is doing now. Those who want to use the libraries should join the fight and stand up against the kneejerk reactions of advocates whose view of the issue is destructively shortsighted.
By Marc Fisher |
December 30, 2008; 9:06 AM ET
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