AT LIBRARY, IT’S SHELTER VS. SAFETY
SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 24, 2006
Section: MAIN NEWS
BY BRENT D. WISTROM, THE WICHITA EAGLE
As the wind gusted and cool rains angled down on the city last week, Wichita’s Central Library began to fill with people.
They were mostly men. Mostly middle-aged. And most of them wore a couple layers of shirts. Some shouldered backpacks. Some stubbed out cigarettes and locked up their bikes.
“They have nowhere else to go,” said Ira Davis, a homeless man, looking out the tall windows on the library’s main floor as rain streamed down.
“It’s a big old whirlpool out there and it gets larger every day when someone loses a job,” he said.
Wichita’s chief librarian, four homeless men and two advocates for the poor agree – it’s either the downtown library or the streets for at least 250 people who, for varied reasons, can’t find steady work and a home and don’t meet the criteria of the city’s daytime shelters.
But they also say that having so many people frequently using the library, many whom have mental illness, is causing problems at the library.
It leads to a complex problem that many other cities’ libraries have faced.
The dynamic is this: Libraries have to provide services to everyone. It’s part of Americans’ First Amendment right to access information, not to mention that many services the library provides can help people find solutions to their problems.
But librarians also want to make sure they have a safe, comfortable and distraction-free environment for everyone.
Though some say a 24/7 homeless shelter is the solution, no consensus has emerged.
“We don’t need a dag-gone handout,” Davis said. “We just need to get back to where we need to be – with a job and a roof over our heads.”
A task force was recently appointed to find solutions for the city’s homeless.
They heard about the library’s dilemma last week.
“For the most part those people (the homeless)cause us no problem at all,” said library director Cynthia Berner Harris, recounting what she told the task force. “In fact, we’d hope that they’d take advantage of the resources we have to get to whatever outcomes they want in their lives. But we know that there are subsets of that population, just like rest of the population base, that are different.”
Sometimes it’s a little panhandling, a grungy smell or a harmless – but discomforting – stare.
But increasingly, there are more serious encounters at or around the library, including fights between people who know each other, substance abuse and arrests of people who have warrants or parole violations.
In 2004, employees at the Central Library called police 34 times.
Last year, it climbed to 79.
And this year, police have been called at least 61 times, according to the library’s records.
The figures include all calls, not just to those linked to the homeless.
In years past, those calls were usually for attempted thefts, Berner Harris said.
But more serious offenses have increased, she said.
This year, 30 percent of calls were for potentially criminal offenses; 25 percent for library code of conduct violations; 25 percent for theft of library materials; 17 percent for medical transports; and 8 percent were related to vandalism of library property or surrounding property. Some calls fell into more than one category.
Later this year, the city will add two police officers to the library’s security. The city also recently trimmed the shrubs around the building where people were sleeping and often littering.
Despite the increased numbers, Berner Harris said there is no reason for anyone to avoid the central library.
There may have been 79 police-assistance calls, but there are also about 400,000 people entering the building a year and checking out about 609,000 items, she said.
Even when there have been confrontations, most or all of them were among people who knew each other before the incident, she said.
“I think we do a good job,” Berner Harris said. “It’s not always an easy thing to do when you’re a public building. But I think far and away the majority of people that use Wichita public library facilities are model library users.”
Rules vs. rights
The library lists 18 unacceptable behaviors, including things people might violate regardless of their place on the social ladder – such as talking on cell phones, campaigning, poor personal hygiene and excessive body odor, perfume or cologne.
Like many libraries, Wichita also prohibits sleeping, both as a deterrent to people misusing the library and to be able to more easily decipher whether a person has a medical problem or is napping.
But some rules, especially any that result in banning people, can be problematic, said Tulin Ozdeger, a civil rights attorney with the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty in Washington, D.C.
“Cities need to take steps further to address the underlying causes instead of penalizing people,” she said. “I think that when cities do not have adequate shelter space or adequate housing, then homeless people really are forced to go to whatever public space is available. Sometimes that’s a street corner, sometimes that’s a park, sometimes it’s a library.”
Cities across the country have tried to prohibit people with strong odors and objectionable clothing from using libraries, but in some cases those policies have been found to violate constitutional rights, Ozdeger said.
“It may be difficult for people to know what constitutes poor hygiene or excessive body order,” she said. “It’s a difficult thing to measure.”
A homeless man won a lawsuit against the Morris Township Library in New Jersey after he was reportedly asked to leave because of his odor.
Other cities have tried to prohibit handing out food in certain places – something that sometimes happens at Wichita’s library.
Ozdeger said the only solution she is aware of is to create a better place for people to go.
Always a resource
With civil rights, customer service and public safety all in play, becoming the de facto daytime homeless shelter has put Wichita’s library officials in a tight spot, said Sam Muyskens, executive director of Inter-Faith Ministries.
Most of the chronically homeless people who frequent the library have substance abuse or mental problems. But he said they aren’t a risk to anyone.
They may act differently or stare, he said, and that may make people who aren’t used to interacting with homeless people uncomfortable.
Part of the solution is helping people understand that, he said. The other, he stressed, is an alternative place for them to go.
“The library has done so many marvelous things to accommodate them,” he said. “But the library’s main mission and purpose is not to accommodate the homeless.”
In any case, the library will continue to be a resource.
A man who wanted to be identified only as Jason said he’s in the library almost every day.
He reads about a book a day, he said, holding a copy of “When Gravity Fails,” by George Alec Effinger.
Jason said he became homeless after drugs, especially methamphetamine, destroyed his marriage and his life in California.
In Topeka, he met someone who said there were more opportunities in Wichita.
He arrived at the Union Rescue Mission with a 100-pound backpack and, in the morning, followed the others to the library.
He recently had an apartment through ComCare, he said, but lost it after not going to his group therapy sessions.
It’s part of his depression, he said, adding that he hides himself from the world, like many men in his situation.
“I isolate,” he said. “Even here.”
Reach Brent D. Wistrom at 316-268-6228 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
More information on libraries and the homeless is available via links attached to this story at Kansas.com.
NOW YOU KNOW
When customers violate one of the following rules, they will be asked to stop or leave the library. Repeat offenders may be banned from the library.
— Interfering with another person’s use of the library or with library personnel’s performance of their duties
— Creating a disturbance
— Willfully annoying, harassing, stalking or threatening another person, including physical, sexual or verbal abuse of other library users, employees or volunteers
— Leaving a child age 7 or younger unattended in the library
— Remaining in the library after its regular closing time
— Playing audio equipment so that others can hear it
— Using a cell phone other than in designated areas
— Eating and drinking other than in designated areas
— Smoking or using tobacco
— Bringing animals or vehicles into the library, except as required by people with special needs
— Interfering with others’ use of the library through poor personal hygiene or excessive body odor/perfume/cologne
— Campaigning, petitioning, interviewing, canvassing or surveying customer s or staff
— Failing to wear a shirt or shoes
— Misusing the restrooms (including use of the restrooms for changing clothes, graffiti or bathing)
— Interfering with, obstructing or blocking free passage on library premises
— Failing to keep personal belongings to oneself
— Any behavior or activity which disrupts use of the library
Source: Wichita Public Library