Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Mediocre Versions of Something Else

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.



  1. sciencereader says:

    Another problem with homeless people and libraries is that the odor emanating from many of the homeless is overpowering.

  2. “If libraries become de facto homeless shelters, what happens to the people who need libraries?”

    Public libraries in the US will, I suspect, always be de facto homeless shelters. Not because we want them to be, or are equipped to be, but because the public library is the only indoor public place I can think of where you can go and do not have to buy anything. I.e., you can “loiter”, so long as you’re not sleeping, or otherwise breaking the rules. Combine that with the fact that most homeless shelters do not let their residents stay there during the day, and you have a situation where the homeless will inevitably be attracted to the public library.

    With that said, there’s a fine line between encouraging the homeless to use the public library as a day shelter and encouraging them to use the library as a library. Some libraries have rules that are thinly disguised to keep homeless out (rules against X-many bags being brought in, etc.), while others go so far as to invite social workers into their buildings. I suspect the best approach is somewhere in the middle. But finding just the right mix of accommodating all people (including homeless), making sure that everyone feels welcome/undisturbed (including by the problems that some homeless take into the library), and satisfying our public librarian desire to help people is difficult. I spend a lot of time trying to think of just the right approach, but it remains elusive.

  3. Libertarian Librarian says:

    Ding! Ding! We have a winner! There are legitimate questions, but libraries cannot replace all social services. The ALA conference in San Francisco was disheartening because session after session was about serving the homeless. A session on personnel policies became a presentation about building showers in libraries for the homeless. My family in the Bay Area won’t use the public libraries because of bedbugs. The homeless should be welcome in libraries, but held accountable to the same rules as others.

    • anonymous coward says:

      You don’t mean, by any chance, that we should treat everyone as equals under the “law” and be neutral as to their specific circumstances that do not impact their use of the facilities? How dare you! I was told we must advocate and be activists to solve all of the world’s (perceived) problems. This doesn’t mesh with the concept that we simply treat everyone the same with respect for them human beings.

    • Frumious Bandersnatch says:

      If you honestly think there is any such thing as equality under the law that isn’t based entirely on your social status and financial means, I’d love to know what fantasy land you’re living in, so I can move there.

    • anonymous coward says:


      Just because other people don’t do it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t. Hell, it doesn’t mean THEY shouldn’t. (I also used quotations marks around law to denote I was using it to mean library rules and regs… but, maybe not everyone can read minds.)

  4. We had a problem with homeless here in my little city and at my library. We did what we could to help, we had information on shelters and churches in the area. We have an agreement with one shelter to allow their residents internet cards to help them find jobs and housing and such. But we also had a rise in stolen books. They would take them and leave them in bushes or under bridges. My heart breaks when I see these folks because I can’t do as much as I want, but I got fed up with how they were misusing our services, and then stealing from us. I was in San Francisco two years ago and it was really sad. There were homeless all over where I stayed in China Town. But I still don’t think it’s the libraries’ job to take care of them completely.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “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.”

    Got it right again! Yes, libraries can help & should be open to all, but there’s only so much they can do. It’s not fair or realistic to expect librarians to double as medical/psychological professionals or social workers. Folks complain about the homeless but God forbid they have to shell out a few more cents to fund a local homeless program or shelter. It’s hard to strike a balance in serving the homeless as well as everyone else. Libraries are doing their best, but neither should they become shelters themselves. It’s really the city/county/state/federal government’s jobs to provide adequate services, not libraries. Nor should prisons become de facto mental institutions, but that’s what’s happening. This issue just emphasizes our ineffective mental health and social services systems.

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