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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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How cruel and unsympathetic, Marc. I thought you were a liberal. I thought you were progressive. I thought you were compassionate. When did you join the GOP?

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | December 30, 2008 10:21 AM

I walk past the west End library a few days aweek and there are always quite a few shopping carts outside, meaning that the owners are inside. I am sympathetic to the plight of the homeless but isn't it the role of certain branches of government to deal with the problem -- and are libraries really supposed to take on this chore? Perhaps the homeless could be put in the police station around the corner on cots or even at the fire station on M Street.

Posted by: BookGuy | December 30, 2008 10:30 AM

Marc, this is a brave stance to take. Thank you for finally saying that the plight of the homeless shouldn't have to fall in the hands of the libraries, and that the government needs to step up. The homeless situation in DC is appalling...not because of the homeless themselves, but rather because we are the capital of the United States and should be taking better care of our own citizens.

Posted by: pidgey1 | December 30, 2008 10:33 AM

How is this cruel and unsympathetic? Libraries are not built so that people might sleep in them, or just sit around for hours. My high school librarian used to kick students out for loitering, too. Why? Because the library is a place for people to learn, and anyone who isn't there to learn should find another place to visit. Fisher and Cooper simply see a library system being underutilized and that's a crime. I get all of my books and magazines from DC libraries, and it's a fact that suburban libraries put the city's libraries to shame, in spite of our huge tax base. This is one big step toward changing that. I imagine the homeless would embrace a better option, as well. Don't blame the libraries for shortcomings elsewhere.

Posted by: scottkdc | December 30, 2008 10:37 AM

For as much as I think Marc is the epitome of the upper Northwest NIMBY elite whose civic activism rarely extends beyond his computer's keyboard, I have to admit he is right about this one.

Our City's libraries should not be a 9-to-5 homeless shelter. But I do think Marc could have also used this as an opportunity to take a stronger stance about what is happening to the homeless in this city and the resources that are (and should be) available to them.

Half credit on this one, Marc.

Posted by: thinman1 | December 30, 2008 11:12 AM

I don't find this "cruel and unsympathetic" in the least. If the city needs homeless day centers, let's create some (with showers and lockers), not turn libraries full of expensive books, computers, and highly educated staff into de facto warming centers. Co-opting libraries for this purpose is like using a laptop as a hammer - you ruin the laptop and it doesn't make a very good hammer.

It is possible to have sympathy for the homeless but also recognize that libraries are NOT the appropriate place to address their problems.

Posted by: wrybread | December 30, 2008 11:13 AM

O come on...

Bums are part of DC much like Bens Chili Bowl.

If you come to DC and dont at least get harassed by a couple homeless people you were never really here.

Posted by: indep2 | December 30, 2008 1:27 PM

Have to agree with you on this one Marc. Loitering in he library discourages the use of the facilities by people actually trying to better themselves.

As far as the advocates for the homeless are concerned, keep trying to provide a safe environment for those who really need it. Unfortunately, I didn't see a home address for Shannon Moriarty. She obviously is willing to take these unfortunate souls into her home for a couple of weeks at least, if not longer. You know, leading us by her actions, not just spewing a few empty words to insist that WE should do something.

Posted by: SoMD1 | December 30, 2008 2:03 PM

Here's the problem with rules that keep one group of people out, they can be used to keep another group of people out and so on. Next thing you know, libraries are only for educated land owners.

Posted by: kelly90210taylor | December 30, 2008 4:18 PM

Just a point of clarification: the rule about not being allowed to sleep in the library is NOT new. It's been in place for years. The real question is to what extent library staff are inclined to enforce the rules.

Posted by: edgeonyou | December 30, 2008 4:37 PM

Unlike the columnist, I actually read the proposed rules and I think that the Post is making a mountain out of a molehill. The Public Library is simply implementing sensible standards. They will apply to all users of the Public Library, without prejudice and they are not written with the homeless or any other specific population in mind.

If anything, Mr. Fisher is creating the controversy and crafting his own lightning rod out of pretty much nothing. I just hope that the Public Library doesn't suffer too much by this manufactured news story. All they're trying to do is establish the line where civility is crossed and enforce some basic standards of behavior for everyone that uses the public library.

In "taking a brave stance," I fear Mr. Fisher is enciting activists to attack the Library over an unwarranted perception that this will limit the rights of anyone in our community. Once again, thanks alot Mr. Fisher... for nothing.

Posted by: lioncub12 | December 30, 2008 4:48 PM

This country needs to go back to the good ole days when only men could vote and you had to own property to vote.

Biggest mistake men made was giving women the right to vote.

It was the right thing to do but it was still a mistake.

The more help you give the homeless the more homeless you have.

Posted by: omarthetentmaker | December 30, 2008 5:33 PM

I now officially remove my tongue from my cheek.

Posted by: RealityCheckerInEffect | December 30, 2008 7:59 PM

Who is going to enforce this?

I realize that librarians are already busy policing wayward children, but will they also be expected to escort snoozers out and check bags?

It's got to be difficult to be a librarian in DC. If this helps morale and retention then it's worth it.

Posted by: RedBird27 | December 30, 2008 9:40 PM

What is not mentioned here is the situation of our librarians. Trained to provide access to information, our librarians and staff at DC public librarians are being asked to take on the roles of security guards and social workers. Underpaid and understaffed, often with inadequate security, these librarians strive to provide services to all patrons but can spend considerable time, facing belligerent and hostile library visitors. Libraries, in their role as community information centers, can provide important services to the homeless - job banks, reading material and internet access. But they are not social workers, nurses or security guards and should not be expected to run daytime homeless shelters at the cost of the services they are funded to provide the entire community. Our city should adequately address the needs of both our libraries and our homeless, but not in the same place or with the same staff.

Posted by: Marian25 | December 31, 2008 9:18 AM

Favorite comments: thinman and lionclub's.

As for the librarians. I am sure they are educated, and maybe it is working in such depressing conditions, but they are hardly the enthusiastic workers you want in the DC Public Library system. They seem unmotivated and like they just don't wanna get up from their desk. I always feel like I am imposing on them whenever I ask a question.

I do not feel like the situation is hopeless. The situation is caused by a system that is itself run by unmotivated people, by councilmembers who couldn't care less about the library, by mayors' offices that couldn't care less. Someone somewhere needs to care about our library system, not to privatize it, not to make statements about homelessness, but to improve it, and attract the public to it, in greater numbers.

Posted by: columbiard | January 1, 2009 5:51 PM

I remember the Library of Congress experienced the same complaints when it implemented a "no-sleeping" policy about 20 years ago. The late Mitch Snyder commented that the policy was fair as long as it was enforced uniformly -- plenty of LC users liked to take a PM siesta. One of the factors that allowed LC to follow through on this was a fairly large in-house police force. Why do I suspect that the DC govt envisions part-time library aides trying to wake up and hustle out the napping homeless.

Posted by: Cossackathon | January 5, 2009 2:58 PM

The problem lies with the shelters, as well. It isn't enough to provide a bed, and then dump the folks out in the daytime. The shelter near my house empties out and the folks drift around the community with no access to bathrooms, let alone reading material. The shelters need to be full service, 24 hour facilities so the impact on libraries can be lessened.

Posted by: emrj | January 6, 2009 3:12 PM

I don't mean to be a smart a-- at all, but maybe the shelters should have libraries?

Posted by: columbiard | January 6, 2009 6:55 PM

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