Showing posts with label Public Libraries. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Public Libraries. Show all posts

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Guest Blogger Commentary: Libraries and the Homeless: What am I to Think?



By Sarah Trachtenberg*

This post is not about atheism, evolution or skepticism, but...

I'm not the first to point it out, http://www.alternet.org/story/50023/ (interesting article in the link) that some public libraries have become day care centers for the homeless. I feel guilty and have mixed feelings about this, having worked in a library where this was an issue. It wasn't prominent in my library, but I've heard that it happens quite a bit in places like New York. (For what it's worth, my library was in a “nice” neighborhood with not that many homeless people.)

The library is, after all, a public place where anyone is allowed to go, almost like church. I love libraries and like to hang out in them, and they have many less-media-based virtues that would appeal to anyone. They are quiet enough that you can sleep, and have comfy chairs (or even couches!) for nap-naps. They are one of the few places with public bathrooms. They are cool in summer, warm in winter. Is it any wonder the homeless line up to get in? I know if I were homeless, that's where I'd go. Hence, my guilt.

On the other hand are the problems this causes. Homeless legitimately use the libraries' media, true, and probably use the computers for job searches and the like. However, most of them come to the library just to have a place to “live” and use it to sleep, eat, bathe and wash their clothes, all of which are against the rules. Many make the library an unpleasant place to be, particularly those who are mentally ill or inebriated, by ranting, speaking loudly or shouting, smelling bad, and, based on what I've read, masturbating. Does this make the library and inviting place to anyone else? I doubt it.

The homeless are sometimes abusive to patrons and staff. It never happened to me, but I've heard of homeless literally assaulting staff. I've had a homeless patron swear at me and my co-workers for simply telling him to leave when the library was closing. He went to the lobby instead of actually leaving, where he lit up a smoke, also against the rules. Again, I had to remind him that he had to go.

Many of homeless people in the library can be simply abusive and rude (again, maybe I can chalk this up to mental illness, but I am hesitant to do so for fear of causing offense. I'm simply saying that those with schizophrenia who are homeless, and a good number of homeless are in their condition because of schizophrenia, can't “help” acting the way they do). Asking them to leave if they are shouting or otherwise acting up usually brings on their wrath.

Library staff are trained to be library staff, not homeless shelter staff or mental illness hospital staff. Those roles aren't in our job descriptions.

What's a guilty liberal to think? In any case, this is a sad testimony on how things can go wrong in one of the wealthiest countries in the world.

(Someone else will have to write about how poor parents send their kids use the library as free day care and assume library staff will be free babysitters. I hear it happens, but haven't dealt with it myself.)

*Paleolibrarian guest blogger, Sarah Trachtenberg, writes for her own Atheist blog at Not My God (www.sarahtrachtenberg.com). Take a look!