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Libraries May Survive Internet, But Not Mental Illness

What's the greatest threat to public libraries? People not reading? The allure of the Interwebs? Hypervigilant parents who don't let their kids go to the library on their own? Or is it the persistent presence of unstable, smelly and potentially dangerous mentally ill people who use libraries as day centers?

A new survey--but beware: it was commissioned by an interested party--says the disturbing behavior of mentally ill patrons makes others less likely to use public libraries.

In the District, libraries director Ginnie Cooper moved earlier this year to set new rules that make it harder for homeless or mentally ill people to set up camp in the libraries; although the city denies that that's the intent, it's clear that the rules are designed to ameliorate the #1 complaint many users have about the libraries--that they have become de facto shelters for people who have nowhere else to go. The rules prohibit people from entering libraries with more than two bags, and they ban sleeping in the libraries.

Now, the Treatment Advocacy Center, a northern Virginia organization that pushes for more aggressive care and treatment of the severely mentally ill, has published a survey of librarians nationwide in which 85 percent of those responding reported having had to summon the police to deal with disruptions caused by mentally ill patrons.

Many librarians have traditionally defended the right of disturbed homeless to stay in the libraries, a caring and good-hearted gesture on the part of a profession that puts great weight on protecting liberties. But many of those same librarians have grown frustrated by their inability to maintain a comfortable and welcoming atmosphere for patrons who might not want, say, their children hanging out in a place where some pretty scuzzy characters are acting out.

"Our nation's libraries are turning into daytime shelters for people with severe mental illness who need to be in treatment," said the study's author, E. Fuller Torrey, founder of the Treatment Advocacy Center. "The fact that libraries remain a safe haven from violence and life on the streets for people with mental illness is a sad commentary. Doing so devalues human life and the importance of libraries in our communities."

The center says a majority of librarians surveyed said that the number of disturbed patrons has been on the rise, and that dealing with people with psychiatric problems takes up a disproportionate amount of the librarians' time.

Whether solutions like the rules changes that the District has imposed will help rebalance the mix of people in the libraries remains to be seen, as does whether such restrictions will pass muster with the courts. In Washington, a federal court judge threw out a previous effort to curb the use of libraries by the mentally ill; the judge said the city had no right to screen library patrons according to how they looked. (Whether smell can be taken into account is not an issue that has had a definitive airing in the courts.)

Good librarians will keep trying to find a constitutional way to protect libraries for the people who make good use of them--but the real solution lies in a different sector of government altogether. The real solution is to stop pretending that the mentally ill people who roam the streets and camp out in libraries are having the time of their lives, and start giving them the care they need, in a decent and humane setting. Just because a past generation went too far with institutionalization does not justify our current policy of forcing the deeply disturbed to wander the streets like vagabonds.

By Marc Fisher |  April 17, 2009; 8:55 AM ET  | Category:  Libraries , The District
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Mark, is there any real doubt that this is true? With all compassion, and while acknowledging that there SHOULD be another day-shelter option (or options) for the homeless (whether mentally ill or not), the presence of homeless people (toting all their worldly belongings), perhaps mentally ill (perhaps not), perhaps unhygienic (perhaps not), makes our libraries less welcoming for the rest of us, and particularly less welcoming for the kids. Please don't tell me that the presence of a some odiferous muttering guy in the library is a teachable moment for my kids. OK, there's a five-minute lesson. Is there any way my kid is going to feel comfortable or safe that way? I'm not.

Libraries are not shelters; librarians are not social workers.

Posted by: mdean3 | April 17, 2009 10:13 AM

I agree wholeheartedly with your conclusion, but I reject your phrase "pretty scuzzy characters." It almost makes light of the predicament of people who have no place to shower, do laundry, brush their teeth and maintain personal hygiene. Same with your point about whether odor is grounds for screening patrons -- the issue hasn't had an "airing" in the courts? Not funny.

Posted by: conchfc | April 17, 2009 10:15 AM

I specifically stopped going to the library in my DC neighborhood because of the large number of homeless people who slept immediately outside at all hours. I couldn't even return a book at the after-hours book drop without being commented on or harassed. It's a shame for the library, and it's a terrible shame for the people who need a more proper shelter and place to go for help and services.

Posted by: rallycap | April 17, 2009 11:21 AM

Over the winter, the library near Eastern Market was always full of homeless men. They were often just quiet and reading, but I was uncomfortable more than once, particularly the time when a fight broke out a couple feet away from me. I quickly left, and the librarians didn't appear at all concerned. I now order all my books so I can grab them off the hold shelf and be out within minutes. I understand they have nowhere else to go, but I don't feel comfortable in my local library. Something needs to be done, particularly when the weather is bad, so the homeless can have alternatives to the libraries.

Posted by: willowj | April 17, 2009 12:04 PM

"the judge said the city had no right to screen library patrons according to how they looked"

Really? The city has no right to screen according to dress or appearance? Why? Did miss the part of the Constitution that affords people the right to enter public buildings with any kind of clothing on that they wish?

While it might be reasonable to be cautious about doing so, I don't think there's any Constitutional prohibition against such screening. What was this judge smoking anyway? Perhaps he should try going to the D.C. public libraries and then come up with his own permissible system for not allowing libraries to be day shelters.

Posted by: rlalumiere | April 17, 2009 12:08 PM

This is not a library issue.

Shelters kick clients out each morning and don't let them back in until evening.

Where are the day activity centers for the mentally ill? Nothing else will keep them on their meds and treatment schedules.

Posted by: MikeLicht | April 17, 2009 12:19 PM

I thought the scuzzy and aired out comments were funny! I stopped going to libraries a long time ago for this very reason--they were full of nasty, stinky, crazy people. I find it interesting that judges don't let homeless people hang out and act a fool in their court rooms all day but have no problem letting them hang out in the libraries. Hmm.

Posted by: PepperDr | April 17, 2009 1:05 PM

The police should arrest the bums loittering at library entrances.

Posted by: ImpeachObama | April 17, 2009 1:06 PM

The police should arrest the bums loittering at library entrances.

The police have no legal right to do this if the homeless are in front of a public building and not causing a disturbance. Now if it was a private residence or business and the owner calls the cops that is a different story.

Posted by: Axel2 | April 17, 2009 1:13 PM

Schools can ban anything or anyone that is disruptive to its orderly operation. That includes short skirts, gel pens, cell phones, tattoos, and anti-war shirts.

Libraries are only seeking the same right as school principals.

Posted by: bs2004 | April 17, 2009 1:29 PM

ImpeachObama wrote:
The police should arrest the bums loittering at library entrances.

Let me guess, based on your screen name I'd say you're one of those who worship Saint Ronnie Reagan. Well, these folks' presence in public places is largely his legacy; a product of his theory of social Darwinism. Saying no to the "socialist" practice of institutionalizing people on taxpayer money, he turned them out into the streets and said they were "homeless by choice"........his.

By the way, if the cops arrest them, they're back to being supported by taxpayers.

Posted by: nonsensical2001 | April 17, 2009 1:54 PM

Homeless shelters do kick residents out -- often as early as 6:00am. They don't allow return until 6:00pm or later. That's a lot of time to kill. Arresting the "vagrants loitering" in front of libraries is essentially making it illegal to be homeless. At the very least, it makes it extremely dangerous to be homeless, as it subjugates them to waiting for shelter in crime-ridden and drug-infested areas, such as alleys and under bridges.

These shelters also have cut-off deadlines for entry at night. If a resident comes back later than a certain hour, they are denied entrance. That eliminates all third-shift jobs such as waitressing and retail, where most unskilled laborers are able to obtain jobs.

I'm not saying I have a solution. But arresting them or selectively banning individuals from public places based on dress are not solutions either.

Posted by: lolyla | April 17, 2009 2:45 PM

The sad truth is that the District would be wasting money in rebuilding all the closed and outdated libraries if children and the rest of the general public are forced to stay away. Why spend many millions of dollars on a service that is not used.

This was something I learned in a most graphic way when I attended a community meeting at one library, and a homeless man was using the men's room to change clothes. I had to use the men's room, and his stench was so overpoweringly foul that I fled the room. Had I stayed another few seconds, I would have vomited. I used the facilities in a store across the street.

I'm a big believer in public libraries, but if there's no common sense solution to this problem, there's no future to public libraries in this town.

Posted by: observer9 | April 17, 2009 2:45 PM

"The real solution is to stop pretending that the mentally ill people who roam the streets and camp out in libraries are having the time of their lives, and start giving them the care they need, in a decent and humane setting."

Agreed. This rule is, I suppose, the counterpart to the changes to benches (in parks or bus stops) around the city (e.g. putting "arm rests" in the middle of benches on Capitol Hill, changing bus stop benches to narrow, steeply sloped bars, all in an effort to discourage sleeping on them): out of sight, out of mind. In other words, we'd rather just get rid of homeless people than get rid of homelessness.

Posted by: goodwinc | April 17, 2009 3:55 PM

Personally I like the idea that they should transfer the homeless day activity center from the public libraries to the courthouses and the city council building. Let the city council and judges experience co-existing with these citizens and then maybe they'll find better treatment and accommodations for these citizens.

Posted by: DadWannaBe | April 17, 2009 6:54 PM

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