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The Homeless and the Future of Libraries

I’ve written many times about the mission creep of public librarians, whether they’re saving drug addicts from overdosing in public parks that aren’t in the library or becoming de facto social workers.

At least some librarians seem to disagree that these are forms of mission creep. It’s impossible to tell from comments how many librarians think that they really should be administering Narcan or counseling the mentally ill.

Maybe they all do, or maybe it’s a vocal minority that is energized enough to make it seem that way. Perhaps mission creep – and it’s definitely mission creep even if some librarians love the creep – is to be celebrated.

For example, maybe we should celebrate that staff at the Sacramento Public Library are now being trained “to help them respond to customers who appear to be suffering from mental problems.”

Given that the public library is the default toilet of the Sacramento homeless population, I guess that makes sense.

The actual businesses, that is, the places that have actual “customers,” are fighting against attracting homeless to the downtown area, and their toilets are off limits to people who aren’t spending money.

The city apparently isn’t going to install any public toilets, which seems to be in line with most American cities, even the ones with large groups of tourists who need public toilets.

So the public library is the public toilet, and since the homeless have more mental illness than the general population, there will be more mentally ill people in the library than anywhere else.

Thus, it makes sense to have all the staff trained not just to supply patrons with books and magazines and other media of information, but also train them to be social workers, counselors, first responders, and anything else any member of the public might need.

It’s not like they have a choice.

Now that we’re celebrating the mission creep from Public Library to Public Toilet and the rest, it seems petty to point out any problems, but pointing out problems is the kind of thing I can’t help doing.

If you’ve read a lot of stories about libraries and the homeless, you might notice a pattern: the cities involved have basically given up on dealing with homelessness.

They don’t have enough shelters, they sure don’t have public bathing and laundry facilities, and they sometimes install hostile architecture to prevent anyone from relaxing in public.

Maybe there’s nothing the cities can do. Despite the best efforts of do-gooders, there are problems that can’t be solved. No matter how many millions are spent, there will always be homeless people, mentally ill people, and others who fall through the large gaps of our social safety net.

The public library obviously isn’t a solution, since it’s not housing or healing anyone.

The potential problem, though, is that if public libraries become known as homelessness centers, their future is in peril. Already, at branches with a lot of homeless, other people avoid the library.

The reasoning is pretty clear: cities, and the country at large, wants to ignore the homeless problem, perhaps because it can’t be solved. The library is where the homeless people go to hang out and use the toilets. The library is a place that can be ignored.

It’s a pretty obvious fact that cities aren’t going to go out of their way to pay for housing and whatever other facilities are necessary to deal with the homeless problem. That’s why so much has been left to public libraries.

If public libraries become homeless centers, cities have an incentive not to keep funding them, because they clearly don’t want to fund public places for homeless people to gather.

By welcoming everyone, public librarians might think they’re fulfilling their mission, but their mission isn’t to provide public toilets, but public information.

If they’re mostly providing public toilets and places for the homeless to loiter, eventually people will stop wanting to fund them because they’ll stop using them, or install hostile architecture that will drive everyone away.

Is this a farfetched scenario? Maybe, but it doesn’t really matter. The homelessness problem isn’t going to be solved, and libraries will be public toilets and homelessness centers by default as long as they’re around. Hopefully, they’ll survive this like they have everything else.

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Comments

  1. mud fence says:

    Careful, calling the library a pubic toilet might be construed as racist and degrading in the same manner that referring to Haiti as a sh*t hole is.

    • Of course it won’t, but you already know that. You were just desperate to attach a defensive Trump reference to a 1100% totally unrelated discussion.

  2. It’s a complicated issue. On the one hand, you want to be open and welcoming to everyone, but on the other, if the homeless are driving away the rest of the patrons that’s a big problem. The thing is, here’s a thought/question: If libraries are becoming defacto homeless shelters, could that be the thing that keeps some of them open? Budgets are getting cut right and left, but if those in charge realize that if certain library branches were to close, then the homeless population would really be out and “visible” on the city streets, would they say “Weeelll, maybe we can find it in the budget to keep the library open”? I’m conflicted if that’s the case.

    • What does “open” mean? Simply being a free space? Libraries could be open and yet have precious few materials and technology. And why pay for librarians when you can train others to be social workers? Libraries need to be funded as libraries, not homeless shelters, because otherwise the library is pretty much closed for library business.

    • sciencereader says:

      “If libraries are becoming defacto homeless shelters, could that be the thing that keeps some of them open?”
      No. That is the thing that leads to libraries closing. To the degree that libraries become homeless shelters, they drive other patrons away, and that makes libraries lose support among the voting and tax-paying public.

  3. Peter Ward says:

    The purpose of libraries is to collect, organize, maintain, and disseminate sources of knowledge. Programs and services should be strictly scrutinized against that major premise. Today we seem to be bouncing from one fad to the next in order to make libraries seem relevant. In the process we have minimized our main purpose. It’s time to stand up to the social justice warriors in our ranks and get back to doing our real work. If you want to to do social work, then get a job as a social worker.

    • agree with PW says:

      Agreed, aside “from seem to be bouncing”; we are bouncing all over looking for something to do, when we have plenty to do already.

  4. This is an issue that is bigger than libraries. Where society as a whole, and its governing and social service bodies in particular, can’t address the root causes of homelessness, it becomes the problem of many entities, not just libraries. For example, our local McDonalds, though it has locked washrooms with a buzz-in system to screen users, those same washrooms have secure boxes to deposit used needles. None of this will find a resolution until we agree to solve the homelessness issue. Until then, libraries do indeed stand in the breech.

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