Homeless People in Libraries

Good morning from the blogger who brought you such hard-hitting posts as “Should I Have Bangs?” and “ME LOVE SHOPPING”!

(Just kidding, “ME LOVE SHOPPING” is an as-yet-unwritten blog post, but this unnecessarily winter-y winter is killing my intellect and it’s only a matter of time before I sink to these depths. I signed in here after being away for a while [“away” = “watching Internet television and napping”], and was mortified that the message I’d left for the world to find was about bangs. I mean, what if I’d DIED? What if I’d died in some interesting, tragic way and CNN scouted out this blog and slathered a screenshot of my bangs post all over the TV?! What would the community think?) </prolonged parenthetical aside>

So, a few months ago I got this job as a Reference Manager at one of the library branches in a slightly sketchier part of my hometown — you know, the part that you would call a ghetto if ghettos existed in such mid-sized, white-bread-n-Jesus Midwest towns such as mine. I’ve since transformed from a wimpy suburban librarian who actually, like, helps people find books to read into one who regularly kicks violent drunks off the premises, dabbles in pee and other bodily functions that end up in places they were never meant to be, and once fished two used tampons out of the men’s toilet with a bookend. AND helps people find books to read!

In short, I’ve become (completely against my will and natural inclination) somewhat of a badass, Dear Reader.

Since October, when the train dropped me off in front of this branch, fresh-faced and innocent and full of all sorts of romantic notions about what a public librarian could be, my eyes have been opened to societal problems that I knew, intellectually, existed, but hadn’t ever experienced in a direct, un-ignorable way.

I.e., homelessness. 

My thoughts on homelessness can be organized thusly:

1. It is a horrible, degrading problem that is not being adequately addressed by the government (OKAY THANKS REAGAN) or society in general.
2. The vast majority of homeless people are untreated, undertreated, or mistreated mentally ill and we have failed them.
3. Public libraries are disproportionately picking up the slack of sheltering and assisting the homeless, a task that, though worthy, we have neither the funds nor the staffing to do. 

Every day, my small staff and I play social worker, police officer, and therapist to anywhere from 15-40 homeless citizens. So you can understand why it’s occupied my brain these last three months. Sometimes I’ll wake with a start, sit bolt upright, and shout to the empty bedroom, “Egads, the HOMELESS! What do we do about the homeless?!”

I’ve been doing research to see how other libraries handle their homeless demographic, and considering it’s such a big issue for so many librarians, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of practical advice out there. Opinions that do exist seem to fall on the extremes:

1) the people who believe libraries should accept their new role in society and install showers and social workers and lift any rules that might discourage homeless people from using the building as a day shelter


2) the people who get angry at the idea of homeless people using the library at all, and feel we should crack down on it by creating rules and conditions that specifically prevent homeless patrons from hanging around and sullying the average upstanding citizen’s Janet Evanovich reading experience.  

My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. There has to be a way that libraries can help and welcome all sorts of people without scaring traditional library users away. 


credit: Matthew Thorsen, photo from Fletcher Free Library in VT

Anyway…this is all to say that I think I’m going to start a library blog so I can think out loud about this stuff without annoying my regular readers, i.e. the people who just want to read about my lifelong struggle with what shall henceforth be referred to as “The Bangs Dilemma.” 



Life in Siberia

Let me tell you about my first week on the new job, in list format.

– My office (how excited I was to have an office!) is in an unfinished corner of the basement, next to the boiler room. It smells like damp socks, my childhood asthma is acting up again because of it, and there are thick bundles of cords hanging dangerously from the ceiling, but it’s mine, dammit. (*proud sniff*) Black mold appears to be growing in one corner, but after filling out the proper work orders and getting approval from their boss who got approval from his boss, Buildings & Grounds has confirmed that it is not actually black mold. I’ll put a plant in front of it.

– A group of older homeless men and one older woman come in almost every day and sit at the round reading table. They talk about food, all day long, and it’s the saddest thing. They describe, in sensuous detail, a ham sandwich they once ate, the corned beef their mothers made when they were children, the quality of the Thanksgiving dinners at various local churches. They talk about it reverently, like soldiers in the trenches describing home. They seem to enjoy describing food almost as much as if they were eating it — as if the right words could conjure up a big, steaming hot meal right there at the reading table.

– Found 17 syringes and a spoon in an open McDonald’s bag behind the utility box in front of the building yesterday.

– Our library partners with a local organization that makes sure homeless women have a safe place to sleep each night, and these women start coming in with their luggage in the afternoon after the sketchy veteran’s center around the corner closes for the day (“sketchy” because it’s not government sanctified, there appears to be no organizational infrastructure [sort of an inmates running the asylum sort of thing], and, once, a woman came to the library saying she’d been beaten up there). Except for some hygiene issues, the women with this program are generally model patrons, sitting at the tables reading books (imagine!) and keeping to themselves. But there is one woman who just sits at the table closest to the reference desk, staring in front of her and periodically laughing at nothing. “What is it?” I asked her once, on my first day, and she shot me a look that suggested I’d just insulted her recently deceased grandmother. Note to self: do not ask patrons why they are laughing at nothing.

– Met a patron named Dumpster Dan (that’s how he introduced himself) who said Uriah Heep was his first real concert and asked what mine was, but when I started to answer [The Decemberists circa 2002 if you must know, Dumpster Dan. JEEZ.] he talked over me like he’d already forgotten the question, complaining that the sound on his computer was broken. When a patron says something is broken, 9 times out of 10 it means that they are just confused about a very simply process. Showed him where the volume toggle was and he proceeded to happily watch Uriah Heep videos for the rest of his hour.

– Female patron dressed as Batman, sitting at the computer checking her Facebook.

– Seriously, I feel bad for those of you who don’t get to work with librarians. Librarians are the weirdest, most interesting lot of kooks, and my new co-workers are among the weirdest and most interesting I’ve met. Since our branch is located way over on the north side of town, far away and forgotten (for the most part) by library administration, there’s a sort of isolated, Siberian feel to our building. Anything goes. Fashion choices that would’ve been cause for write-up when I worked at the main branch flow freely out here. There’s the herbalist who wears pentagrams. Actually, there are two herbalists who wear pentagrams. Cleavage and hoodies abound. None of the other managers seem to observe the dress code (which tells us to always wear a suit coat), which is great since I’ve never managed to pull off shoulder pads without feeling like a kid in mommy’s wardrobe.

– I asked a co-worker (one of the herbalists) if there were any ghosts haunting this old building and she went to her desk and dug out a CD mysteriously labeled: “J.R. GHOST HUNTER. EVIDENCE OF THIS LIBRARY.” I guess a ghost hunting group set up camp here a while back. I can’t wait to watch this disc; saving it for Halloween.

– Apparently changing from air conditioning to heat is a massive, two-day project, so the temperature inside the library has been more or less what it is outside this whole week. My hands and the top of my nose are always cold. There aren’t enough cardigans in the world.