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The Homeless Problem

Urban libraries often have a hard time figuring out how to deal with the homeless. While libraries are open for all, too many homeless people loitering about can make libraries seem inhospitable to citizens who want to use the libraries as libraries rather than as homeless shelters.

Escondido, CA is apparently no exception to this, and it has created a task force to figure out what to do about the problem after people complained about the homeless loitering around the entrance.

Some people have been so put off by the library that they drive a whopping six miles over to the San Marcos Library, and Californians famously hate driving anywhere.

The smoking and loitering “has sharply increased since the city cracked down on crime and homelessness in nearby Grape Day Park last winter.”

Thus, an easy solution might be to just crack down on crime and homelessness on the library grounds. Maybe the city could declare a War on the Homeless and qualify for federal funds, since the feds love it when Wars are declared on things.

Of course this doesn’t get to the root of the problem, but dealing with the causes and effects of homelessness isn’t the library’s job. That’s somebody else’s job, but the job’s been abandoned for so long that we can’t say for sure who that somebody is.

A smoking ban is also under discussion, which would at least prevent the loiterers from fouling the air around the library entrance and throwing cigarette butts around. Won’t help with the homeless, though.

The oddest part of the discussion, and one that is hard to understand without some local knowledge, is the controversy over a coffee cart, which according to the story and its comments may or may not partially block the library entrance. Eliminating that is supposedly a popular idea with the board of trustees.

Are the homeless in Escondido really lining up to buy coffee from the library’s coffee cart and then hanging around to drink it? Could that really be the problem?

If anyone familiar with the situation in Escondido knows more about it, feel free to comment, but from a distance that looks like a silly way to deal with the homeless problem.

Other libraries without coffee carts have the same problems, and it seems hard to believe that people with no place to go would show up to the library, see the coffee cart was gone, and say “to hell with this, I’m going somewhere else! Maybe San Marcos!”

On the other hand, a homeless advocate led a petition drive to keep the coffee cart, so maybe that’s really the issue. The homeless just love their library coffee too much.

That guy “says the city would rather force its homeless residents to keep migrating than find any real solutions to the problem.” But how would eliminating the coffee cart force the homeless to keep migrating?

City officials claim the cart isn’t related to the homeless, even though getting rid of it seems to be linked somehow. They claim that “that customers smoke and leave litter on the ground.”

Unless the coffee cart is selling them cigarettes, which I doubt, how is that the fault of the cart? Wouldn’t a smoking ban or a few strategically placed ash cans be more likely to solve those problems?

The advocate claims it’s also a good place for people to get coffee and snacks if they’re at the library a long time. Google Maps indicates the nearest coffee shop is 4 blocks away, so that’s a good point.

Something tells me Kettle Coffee and Tea probably serves better coffee than the library coffee cart, but they probably don’t allow the homeless inside.

Regardless of what happens, one thing is clear. Homelessness and the homeless aren’t a library problem. They’re a community problem, and the only reason the library is having to deal with it is because the community has refused to.

Maybe the solution is to just close the library. Then nobody will have to worry about homeless people loitering around drinking coffee. That’s a lot easier than dealing with the real homeless problem.

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Comments

  1. Midwest SciTech Librarian says:

    Maybe the operator of the coffee cart can be San Diego’s Pied Piper of Hamiln. When all the homeless start gathering around it for their morning cup of joe, the operator can slowly start moving the cart away from the library. The homeless will follow it to a new location away from general public and all will live happily ever after. Of course to make sure that all the homeless come along, the cart can drag a few packs of cigarettes behind it, moving just fast enought not to be caught.

  2. Very well said! The San Diego region has a low performing system of housing and services for people who are homeless. Maybe it is time we stop always blaming people who are homeless and look at how the 100 plus million dollars is being spent to help them. It is not about more money. Moving people around and blaming coffee carts will not help either.

    • spencer says:

      Having been homeless in San Diego (albeit as a child 20 years ago) I can say that the issue was then simply a matter of volume. There were an insane amount of homeless bodies- they can’t all be at the St Vincent DuPaul shelter.

  3. Mark says:

    I wonder why it doesn’t occur to people seeking shelter at the library that, if you just find an interesting book and sit down to read it, nobody would notice. If you happen to fall asleep over a book, well, lots of people do that. I suppose that what bothers some people is seeing someone blatantly ignoring the purpose of the library. These days a library is hard enough to keep open even when everyone is behaving as expected. Use it for its intended purpose, though, and you can stay all day.

    Then this whole affair wouldn’t be a distraction from the real issues, would it?

  4. Judith Swink says:

    Re: homeless people sleeping in the library…. Years ago, San Diego Public Central Library addressed that issue by directing security guards (sadly, needed for problems other than rousting the homeless) to wake up anyone they see nodding out over a book or magazine. Seems to work and I have the impression that it has reduced the number of homeless people there for purposes other than library-related purposes.People also aren’t allowed to bring large bags into the library altho’ backpacks don’t count. Loitering outside would be a law-enforcement matter. In the end, though, the library is a public building so no one can be excluded from entry based simply on a subjective determination that someone is “homeless”.

  5. sharon crane says:

    We have a homeless people who frequently come to our library to use the computers .. not to look for a job, but to watch You-tube videos and Facebook. One man in particular smells like he hasn’t bathed in years. WHY are libraries so timid about asking these people to leave? Why can’t I tell the guy to at least bathe and come back. The other day, we had “stinky man” stink up our entire children’s dept. Everyone eventually left except two people. This is so unfair to patrons who have to suffer through the stench.

    • Often times, the stench is not coming from a homeless person, but a mentally ill person who has a home. Deal with the individual causing the problem, not an entire group of people who may, or many not, be causing a problem.

    • Sarah K says:

      > not to look for a job, but to watch You-tube videos and Facebook.

      Yes, how dare those homeless people use the library for entertainment just like everyone else!

  6. The public outcry about homeless people speaks more of people’s lack of tolerance for those who are different, than about any real problems created by homeless people. In other cities, such as the one I just came from, Nashville, they have successfully dealt with the homeless at their downtown location without mistreating the homeless, and leaving the library open to all. And librarians have been working on this issue for at least a decade now, and you can find a great many resources for library administrators about best practices. Homeless and non-homeless people can coexist peacefully. All that’s really required is for each to respect the other. It is possible, it happens in libraries all over the country.

  7. John Cage says:

    Public libraries made this rod (and numerous other rods) for their own back when they allowed themsleves to be turned into all-purpose “community centres” or “living rooms of the city”. Increasingly I find myself thinking libraries should simply be privatised.

    • then it wouldn’t be a “public” library would it? By all means, create your private library, nothing is stopping you. Just don’t expect public funds to pay for it. The reality is, public libraries are going the way of the post office. Technology is killing them, and other last-century institutions. That’s why public libraries have been changing, they’re trying to find ways to stay relevant, and not doing too well at it.

  8. John Cage says:

    “then it wouldn’t be a “public” library would it?”

    That’s kind of the point. When people get something for free, they tend not to value it, a fact reflected in the attitude and behaviour of an increasing number of “patrons” for whom we are nothing but an internet cafe/copy centre/place to dump the kids/general hangout whilst yammering mindlessly on your mobile.

    Privatising libraries would, in theory, mean they would be used by those who valued reading, research and generally enlarging one’s mind. And of course they wouldn’t expect public funds, thast goes without saying when something is privatised.

    • “When people get something for free, they tend not to value it,” That is a bit of a non-sequitur. Certainly there will be some people who won’t value a public library, but those people also tend to not value things that are paid for, as well. If a survey was taken, I’m certain that the majority of public library patrons do indeed appreciate what they have in their public library. You are pointing at a small minority of people and attempting to paint all library patrons with that broad brush. How libraries are funded doesn’t need to change, but certainly policies do. And the general public needs to be educated about the wide diversity of people living within their cities, including homeless people. The category of “homeless” represents a very wide range of people types, the majority of whom are good citizens in every sense of the word.

    • D says:

      Hi John. You seem a little cranky today. These private libraries of the future you describe – here in the states, we call them bookstores. And they’re doing just about as well as public libraries. People wanting to use the library’s internet computers and copiers and believing that the library is a safe place where they want their kids to be describes an ideal situation to me. Perhaps my heaven is your hell.

      Homeless people create big problems for public libraries. Many homeless people suffer mental illness and abuse drugs. Their behavior makes the library less safe and interferes with reading and learning. Eliminating coffee carts and privatising libraries is unlikely to address the significant problems libraries endure related to homeless people.

    • Sarah K says:

      >Privatising libraries would, in theory, mean they would be used by those who valued reading, research and generally enlarging one’s mind.

      No, privatizing libraries would mean they would be used by the affluent only. Since you believe that people “tend not to value” what’s free, you seem to be supporting the institution of some sort of fee for private library membership. This would exclude many people living in poverty from using the library, when arguably those are the people who need libraries most.

  9. Captain Librarian says:

    It does seem in the article, that the coffee cart receives an oddly disproportionate share of the blame. Maybe the issue is over-caffeinated homeless people? I know I tend to get a bit edgy after too many cups.

  10. Again, just deal with the individuals who are causing problems and leave the rest alone. I use the library all the time, I don’t bother anyone, I don’t smell, I am homeless. Why should I be singled out because some other homeless person caused a problem? You will find, if you take a closer look, that most of the people who cause problems in libraries are no homeless. Besides, many homeless people don’t look homeless, and you’d never know they were homeless unless they told you. Your labels for people are inaccurate.

  11. There is already enough wealth in the world to create private libraries. If you want a “for a fee” library, go talk some wealthy people into building them. There is no need and no reason to take away free libraries from the general public.

  12. OliviaNOPE says:

    “When people get something for free, they tend not to value it.” You do realize the library isn’t free, right? It is funded by your tax dollars. You have prepaid for the libraries services so whether you value them or not has nothing to do with the price.

  13. Colin says:

    Here in Minneapolis we have tons of libraries and, sure, there may be homeless people and folks who suffer mental illnesses who hang out there. Yes, some of them use the computers a lot and others sit and read with all their gear scattered about; however, I have also noticed that these folks usually create no more of a disturbance than your average everyday middle-class individual or family. Generally the lesser fortunate people mind their own business and just want a refuge to hang out for a few hours in the AC or heat with the ability to look at the internet or read a bit. Who’s gonna fault anyone or that kind of behavior? Pretty freaking boring and normal if you ask me.

    PS, if somebody stinks, go away from them. Libraries are a public space, deal with it.

    • Yep, it does seem that what most people are upset about is the proximity thing. They just don’t like being that close to a homeless person. It’s very much the Cast system, where some people are considered so low as to be “untouchable”.

  14. Librarian-In-Training says:

    I’m not gonna lie, in my experiences at public libraries the homeless aren’t the only ones who reek. I’ve seen (or should I say, smelled) plenty of “normal” patrons who could’ve used a good scrub. The fact libraries are seen as safe havens for the homeless I think says something positive for libraries. Clearly they’re seen as inviting, open places that can meet at least some of the homeless’s needs (unlike the community they’re living in!)

  15. Christa says:

    I think it’s sad that the homeless are viewed as a problem by libraries. They’re arguably our most under-served group. Shouldn’t we view this as an opportunity to reach out to the segment of the community that needs our services the most? Also, if a large community group is reaching out to libraries for a service that we can easily provide (a place to relax and pass some time,) wouldn’t it be foolish to ignore this? Here’s a model for how this can work: http://www.sfgate.com/bayarea/article/Library-adds-social-worker-to-assist-homeless-3275950.php

    In the end, we have plenty of customers at any library who are loud, smell badly, or loiter. (Usually middle class families with children.) Yet people never seem to mind if the average customer loiters. I think the fuss about loitering stems from people just feeling uncomfortable with sharing a space with the homeless.

    • Kevin Barbieux says:

      Actually, libraries and librarians, for the most part, don’t consider homeless people to be a problem. The big complainers are the mean spirited people who look for any excuse to say something negative about homeless people.

  16. Cec says:

    Homelessness may not be the library’s problem. But south of the Escondido library, at the brand new San Diego Public Library Central branch, they addressing it. There is a full time social worker on staff to help homeless PATRONS !!!! Bravo SDPL!!!!!!!

  17. Nancy says:

    For me, the issue is rights. Why do the homeless have more rights in the library than responsible people who work & pay taxes for the library? Those citizens have the right to be able to enter the library without walking through throngs of loiterers at the door, sit on a chair that is not infested with lice, bedbugs or roaches, breath air that does not smell of urine and odor, because a homeless individual has sat there for 8 hours. They have the right to a clean public restroom, not one with drug gear & alcohol bottles in the trash, or human waste on the floor. They have the right to a family friendly environment & not hear foul language at every turn.

    What many of you fail to understand is that many of the homeless who come to the library do not want help. In our city, they would rather not go to the Day centers, because someone might talk to them about their addictions or mental health. They have already antagonized, robbed and abused every family member & friend they ever had…that is why they are now in the libraries. We have extended service & courtesy to many homeless individuals.
    And how are we treated in return? Our books have been urinated on in the stacks, people have defecated on the floor, the bathrooms get trashed and we get verbal abuse.

    I am not advocating that the homeless be banned from libraries. However, the rights of the homeless end when they tread on someone else’s rights.

    • Christa says:

      Nancy, why should welcoming the homeless into the library mean that the library can’t be clean and pleasant for everybody? If families “have the right to a clean public restroom, not one with drug gear & alcohol bottles in the trash, or human waste on the floor,” don’t the homeless have the same right to a safe, clean environment? Why not look for a positive solution, like San Francisco’s hiring of a social worker as a liaison, as well as formerly homeless patrons to help monitor the restrooms?

      The homeless certainly don’t end up on the streets because they’re just lazy and irresponsible. They don’t become homeless to avoid paying taxes or to live off of others’ dimes. They’ve faced serious disadvantages that most of us don’t have to deal with. You claim that “they have already antagonized, robbed and abused every family member & friend they ever had…that is why they are now in the libraries.” So does that mean that you talked to them, personally? You got to know every one of them, like all of the LGBTQ youth who have been kicked out because their parents found out they weren’t heterosexual? You’ve talked to people like my brother, who lives in a tent while he works to support his son rather than leave the city to stay with family? Or my best friend’s mother, who, in spite of working harder than anybody else I know was almost homeless herself? Do you think they want that? Even if somebody is homeless due entirely to their own poor choices, that does not mean we get to use that as justification to deny them equal treatment.

      It is not your place or mine to judge somebody or to withhold services for not wanting to talk about their addiction; to do so is a betrayal of our core professional philosophies. They can use our services so badly, and it is our job to provide them. They don’t owe us anything in return.

      Before anyone else accuses the homeless of being lazy or irresponsible, I’d like to point out how extremely lazy it is to, instead of looking for a real solution to the homeless “problem,” alienate a group of people who can really use the library’s help.

  18. Kevin says:

    Gee, Nancy, you have a very vivid imagination and an inaccurate perspective of homeless people.

    • nancy says:

      those are all true events at a medium sized urban library. As I stated, & you two ignored, I do not advocate banning the homeless, I do expect EVERY ONE in the library to follow the same rules and courtesies, despite their personal circumstances. If “judgmental” means expecting socially acceptable behavior, with consideration for all users of a public facility, then, yes, I am.

      Christa, it would be a wonderful world if libraries could hire all sorts of outreach workers, and have cleaners on hand 24/7…but this is recession. Most libraries have cut back on book budgets, staff, etc. I consider myself fortunate that we have been able to remain open. Health and Social Services doesn’t need the public library to replicate their area of expertise.

    • Kevinbe says:

      Again, Nancy, you distort the truth. Most of the time, most of the patrons of libraries, homed and homeless, behave properly. But if we are going to focus only on “bad” behavior we must also admit that homed and homeless people are equally guilty. Well, actually, from all that I’ve seen at libraries and have heard from librarians, homed people are still more of a problem. The thing is, we shouldn’t be separating the homeless from the rest of society. That is no different than having separate drinking fountains for whites and blacks.

    • Christa says:

      Nancy,

      I think my reply was too long. Let me start with the short of it.

      “What many of you fail to understand is that many of the homeless who come to the library do not want help. In our city, they would rather not go to the Day centers, because someone might talk to them about their addictions or mental health. They have already antagonized, robbed and abused every family member & friend they ever had…that is why they are now in the libraries.”

      That comment is extremely offensive, and I’m sorry to hear it come from a library professional. Your own experiences, however negative they may be, do not justify that kind of prejudiced speech. I would be happy to discuss solutions to unacceptable behavior in the library, but I feel that it’s useless if we can’t get past personal prejudices first.

    • anon for this one says:

      Nancy may come across as too harsh for some people, but there is some validity to her comments. In most urban areas, there has been a reduction in budgets for social services at the municipal, county, and state levels. As a result, the non profits that helped provide services for the homeless can’t help as many in some cities. Most shelters have rules and guidelines for the people who stay there including no alcohol or drug use while a resident. For a significant percentage of the homeless population, that is a common problem. With reduced funding, they don’t have the money for staff or space that they had.

      I don’t go to the shiny new central library where I live because of the downtown crowds and lack of parking. I also fear due to the action of the city in regards to the homeless population, the problems they had with the homeless at the old central library are going to happen again. I don’t think that libraries with reduced budgets should have to provide showers and serve as a day shelter for the homeless. If they want to do that, then have the Department of Social Services pay for those services and provide the staff to run those facilities.

      Also, the major factor that I haven’t seen addressed yet is the fact that they don’t have a permanent address either as a home owner or renter and don’t pay property taxes directly or indirectly. Public libraries shouldn’t be providing internet access for people who pay no property taxes to them.

  19. Kevin says:

    I’ll tell you what I’ve seen at the new central library in San Diego. I have seen homed people bring their dogs into the library and their dogs piss and shit on the library’s new carpet. I’ve seen homed people bring their babies into the library and their baby throws it’s bottle and half the bottles contents spill out on the new floors. I’ve seen homed people bring food into the library and leave a mess on a table meant more for a bus boy than a librarian. There are crowds of homed kids riding their bikes and skateboards right outside the entrance to the library that I must dodge and weave through just to get inside the building. etc.

  20. Kevinbe says:

    Yeah, it know it’s kinda weak, but when you write a lot about people with homes and people without homes, you take literary shortcuts were you can. If you have any suggestions for describing a person with a home, using fewer words, please pass them on.

    • Wow says:

      I will accept economy of words as your reason. However, as a commenter wrote above, we want all people to respect the library space and the people within it. This includes home owners, renters, homeless, street people, vagrants, visitors to the city, whoever you are. We don’t refuse service based on property ownership.

  21. nancy says:

    Christa,

    I am allowed to have a personal opinion, which I mostly keep to myself, as long as I do my best to help each individual in the library with their particular request, with courtesy. I do this, and happily. I am extremely pleased when a client we have had, who has been on the streets, is thoughtful enough to come back & let us know that their situation has improved. I love my job; I like the variety of people that come through the doors every day. What I want, is a nice environment for EVERYONE. I can not make excuses for abusive, destructive or inappropriate behavior based on individual circumstances.

    My educational background is in English literature. I do not have expertise in the fields of social services, psychiatry, addictions, counseling, anger management, PTSD, brain damage or any of the myriad physical & mental health problems people have. We direct them to social services when we can. If the State Dept of social services would provide an outreach worker, I would be thrilled. I doubt that will happen any time soon in this economic climate.

    The trend in libraries has been to hire part-time people for low hourly wages; the only real “librarians” are basically the managers, who are often not on the floor, at least in my state.

  22. Kevin says:

    It is interesting that although many library systems are facing cutbacks, others are expanding. Politicians have so many hidden agendas, you never really know their true intentions or motivations. San Diego just completed a new central library for 130 million dollars, most of the cost was covered by donations. In 2000, Nashville built a new and very large downtown library at the very same time, other cities were cutting back on libraries. Both the Nashville and the San Diego libraries have social services available to the homeless. And many other libraries offer at least a referral service. Librarians have never been just about books, they are a central part of life for every city which embraces it. Libraries not only have books, they also have meeting rooms, auditoriums and host many community events, such as political debates, and operate as polling places. Many libraries show a “movie of the week”, many are dedicated to collecting and maintaining the local history, archiving newspapers, and are made available as shelter in case of natural disaster. Being that libraries are so “multi-purpose” why shouldn’t care for the homeless be a part of that?