Some problems just aren’t solvable, and homelessness in San Francisco seems to be one of them. According to this article, there are roughly six to ten thousand homeless people in San Francisco, and while the city doesn’t have the largest number of homeless per capita, it does have “the highest proportion of unsheltered homeless, counting 511 people on the streets for every 100,000 residents.”
Why so many unsheltered? After all, there are about 70 different shelters listed at this site of “San Francisco Homeless Shelters & Services For The Needy.”
But only 18 of those are listed as being in the city itself, and many are over 20 miles from the city center. It’s not like homeless people commute 20 miles daily for shelter.
Also, there are lots of limitations. Some only have a few beds. Some take only families, or teenagers, or men, or women, or Asian women. Some don’t seem to actually house people at all, just provided services. There are also space limitations and time limitations in addition to the distance limitations. And few of them seem to be run by a government agency dedicated to helping house the homeless.
So what happens when there’s no coordinated effort to solve a problem? It just grows, and in this case significantly affects libraries, to the extent that some are considering “defensive architecture” to deter homeless people, such as “railings on walls to prevent sitting, undulating rock formations to prevent encampments, benches with armrests to prevent people from lying down.”
The homeless who use libraries as shelters are against it, of course, and some of their stories are heartbreaking, such as the man who “originally came to San Francisco because his conservative Texas family rejected his sexuality,” and who “became paralyzed in a 2015 car accident and has a meth addiction.” Could life get any worse for him? It seems as if it could.
On the other hand, local residents complain of “used needles, graffiti, trash and human waste” and others are afraid to go to the library because of “people yelling, shouting, fighting amongst themselves” near the library.
If you’ve never been to San Francisco, it might be hard to comprehend what this is like, especially if you’re walking alone. Dozens of people gathered around, some yelling. You know that lots of them are drug addicts or mentally ill. The occasional aggressive homeless person. What should be a scene of sadness can turn into a scene of fright.
I don’t know if there’s an official ALA position on homeless people and libraries, other than everyone generally being welcome, but the ALA President reported an increase in services to the homeless. “What is continuously upsetting to us is the condition in which people have to exist,” she said.
Yes, that is upsetting to most people, but is allowing libraries to serve as de facto homeless shelters a good idea, especially if doing so disrupts the ability of libraries to serve the 99.5% of people who aren’t homeless?
There’s also the problem that happens when libraries become community centers or theme parks or anything else. If libraries become de facto homeless shelters, what happens to the people who need libraries?
Is the homelessness problem a bad thing? Absolutely. But libraries aren’t designed to or capable of solving that problem unless they change into something other than libraries.
They could do what those shelters do: provide housing, food, clothing, showers, medical care, drug addiction treatment, help finding places to live, etc. If libraries aren’t willing to do that, then they aren’t really committed to helping the homeless, and if they did that they would no longer have the resources to be libraries.
The library urge to solve all social problems because of failures elsewhere in the system is understandable, perhaps even admirable, but doomed. Instead of helping the homeless, library grounds become homeless encampments, driving away most other users.
A district manager for the library system “emphasized that the branches welcome those seeking information of any kind, including ‘where to find shelter, where to find a food pantry.’”
If they do anything else other than provide information and places to read or use computers, libraries will just become mediocre versions of something else, which means they’ll also be mediocre versions of libraries.