Libraries Become Temporary Refuge for Homeless

Chip Ward, the former assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, talks about his op-ed that appeared in Sunday's Los Angeles Times, where he discusses how public libraries have doubled as shelters for the homeless.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

And it's time now for the Opinion Page. If you use the public library in big cities, you know that sometimes the person who sits next to you might not smell so good, might act a little strangely, might even be drunk. That's because public libraries across America have long served as daytime shelters for the homeless. Especially when the weather is bad, public libraries are often their only place that they can go. Many of the chronically homeless are mentally ill, others are alcoholics or drug addicts. So what do libraries do? How strange is too strange? How smelly is too smelly?

If you're a librarian or a library user, what's your experience been? What should libraries do? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail us, talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation.

Until recently, Chip Ward was assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. He wrote an op-ed piece that was published yesterday in the Los Angeles Times, and he joins us now from his home in Grantsville, Utah.

Nice of you to speak with us today.

Mr. CHIP WARD (Assistant Director, Salt Lake City Public Library): Good afternoon.

CONAN: And you have a couple of touching stories in your piece about people who are mentally ill or have trouble with alcohol, people who were regulars in your library like a woman you write about named Ophelia.

Mr. WARD: Right. And I think that every library in the country, especially urban libraries, has some sort of homeless population that they serve. And I want to emphasize that they serve because they have information needs just like anybody else. The problem is coping with odd behaviors that are often the result of addiction or alcoholism or mental illness.

CONAN: And the difficulty for libraries is where do you draw the line and do you start worrying about a liability in terms of legal liability.

Mr. WARD: Well, you know, it can be fairly simple. At the Salt Lake City Library we drew the line pretty well. I think we emphasized to our staff that we respond to people's behavior - not their appearance and not their status but their behavior. We do have, however, one standard of civic behavior that's expected in public, and if you don't meet it, you cant be there.

I think the problem that librarians have is that very often the people in front of them are suffering mental illness. We are acting as auxiliary social workers. We are often dispensing health care through paramedics and emergency rooms and so forth. And it seems like we've saddled with the problem that is society's problem but our part in this isn't acknowledged.

CONAN: You also say that in a way the chronically homeless, at least some of them, that their behavior is criminalized and librarians end up being complicit in the criminalization.

Mr. WARD: Yeah. During the 1980s, when we discovered that a lot of the mental institutions that were holding people were snake pits that were kind of indifferent or inadequate, we started closing them down. And the plan was that those people were supposed to go in the local communities where clinics and facilities and programs would be available. Those plans, however, were not implemented and clinics were not built, and as a result a lot of those people became homeless and marginalized.

Today, we have a new phase which is called Housing First which is an attempt to put those people into housing and then treat them, and a lot of communities have programs based on Housing First's principles. And I think that it's very important at this time that we don't drop the ball because this is the best thing that we've had in solving this problem for a long time.

CONAN: And…

Mr. WARD: I would like to see the Housing First programs expanded and enhanced and, you know, accelerated. But that would help get those people out of the library faster than anything else.

CONAN: But in the meantime, what happens? You described an incident where a man comes in and his behavior becomes increasingly erratic, he's unable to control himself and eventually the librarian has no choice but to call the police.

Mr. WARD: Right, and this happens all the time. Basically, we were now re-institutionalizing those people into jails, and we've been doing that for a long time. And of course if someone is suffering a psychosis, probably the worst thing to do is to put them in a jail where they're humiliated and intimidated and aggravated. So I think most librarians have a very compassionate approach. I know at the Salt Lake City library we try very hard to be fair and helpful, but there are times when you just have to draw the line and call the cops because the person in front of you is a danger either to himself or herself or to others.

CONAN: And another line you drew is no drinking in the library.

Mr. WARD: Oh, absolutely not. You know, you're allowed to be in the library, but you're not allowed to be either intoxicated or drinking there.

CONAN: You're not allowed to be intoxicated, yet a lot of people come in with, you know, the faint odor of mouthwash and a rather more vigorous odor of gin.

Mr. WARD: Right.

CONAN: And what…

Mr. WARD: People who are poor often self-medicate with whatever's available, and mouthwash happens to be a cheap alternative to liquor.

CONAN: Let's see if we can get some listeners in on this conversation. If you use libraries, if you work in libraries, what's the situation where you are? How do you cope with it? 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK. E-mail is talk@npr.org. Elliot's on the line, Elliot from the Quad Cities in Illinois.

ELLIOT (Caller): Yeah, hi. I was a librarian - I was a shelver in a library, a branch in the St. Louis system for a couple of years, and you know, the homeless were there every day, and there were a - we had situations similar to what your speaker today is talking about, but basically, as long as they kept to themselves and as long as they didn't smell too badly, by which we define it as no one complained, you know, we didn't have a problem.

And we had a police officer in the library, so I guess that was a subtext message of you can't screw around in here. And as I was thinking about this, it occurred to me that the most difficult people we had to deal with weren't the homeless, but were once or twice the patrons.

CONAN: Excuse me, once or twice the patrons?

ELLIOT: Yeah. The homeless - I think I can recall two incidents where we had to forcibly evict a homeless person.

Mr. WARD: I think that probably the best way of getting people to behave while in the library, and it doesn't matter whether we're talking about homeless patrons or kids that are coming off the streets - you know, a lot of libraries are also daytime daycare centers and, you know, for kids after school - is to get a relationship with those people, get to know their name and respond to them through a relationship.

I'd like to make it clear, though, that - I mean, I think if you read the entire article, if your listeners go to tomdispatch.com - tomdispatch, one word, dot com - you can see that I'm not really complaining about life in the library. I'm saying that this is a social problem, that it belongs to all of us. People simply see it in the library, and we deal with it in the library, and I think my point was more to get the problem of chronic homelessness acknowledged.

CONAN: And if you want to go to our Web page at npr.org, there'll be a link to that article, and you can read that, and indeed all of our recent op-ed Opinion Page pieces. Elliot, thanks very much.

ELLIOT: Thank you.

CONAN: Here's an e-mail we have from Eamonn(ph) in San Francisco. I use the main library in San Francisco and sometimes see a homeless guy sitting at the desk muttering nonsense to himself. However, I find this only slightly less annoying than the nicely-dressed guy at the other desk yakking on his cell phone at the top of his lungs.

So of course, there are bad behaviors, and then there are bad behaviors.

Mr. WARD: That's right, and the homeless haven't cornered the market on bad behavior. That's for sure.

CONAN: That's for sure. Nevertheless, it was interesting, you raised the situation of a man in New Jersey, who again - the smell problem that some people raise - who was evicted from a library and sued and was allowed back in.

Mr. WARD: Well, he actually sued the library for throwing him out, and as a result of that court case, a lot of libraries became very inhibited about banning people for odor, which is probably a good thing. Odor is very subjective, and it's hard to enforce a rule that's based on someone's personal preference. And I particularly don't like being stuck in elevators with people who are wearing too much perfume.

So libraries have started to write policies that will meet a legal standard and are a little less objective. Even so, if in the librarian's point of view, no one likes to confront someone and say you stink and humiliate that person. So it's still a problem, even if you've got a policy that can stand up in court.

CONAN: Mm-hmm. Let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Susan, and Susan's with us from Downers Grove in Illinois.

SUSAN (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi.

SUSAN: Yeah, we go to our library and I take my daughter there, and I have a concern on evenings when - a particular night a week, a lot of homeless come because they use the shelter. But I also have a mental health background, and my concern is that librarians are not supposed to dealing with mentally health people.

You know, 70 to 80 percent of homeless people are mentally ill. So, you know, librarians don't necessarily have the skills to work with people with mental health issues.

CONAN: And Chip Ward, I think that was one of your points. There should be some other place.

Mr. WARD: Exactly. We are not trained, and we really get money to do one mission, not two. People want us to provide library service, not act as auxiliary social workers. I think that the problem really will never be solved until we get people who are living on the street off the street and get them into treatment. And, of course, it's pretty unrealistic and unreasonable to expect someone who is suffering a psychosis or addiction or alcoholism is going to get better while they're in a demeaning, unstable, chaotic situation on the street.

The first thing you have to do is put those people in houses, and oddly enough, that is a solution that is less expensive than what we do right now.

CONAN: Susan, are you concerned when you take your child to the library? Are you concerned for her safety?

SUSAN: Well, yes. I don't leave her alone, even though she's 13. But it's not because I'm against the homeless. It's because I have a mental health background. I'm an art therapist. I've worked with people with mental health issues, and, you know, they aren't always predictable. And so it just - they're in the wrong place.

I believe it was the Reagan administration that - where the funds were cut for mental health institutions with the idea that money is supposed to go into these halfway houses for people to be, and then that never happened. And we still have this serious problem in our country.

CONAN: A lot of it was state funding, too, not just federal funding.

SUSAN: Okay. Yeah, you know, I don't know the specifics. I just know that we have a terrible situation nationwide that has to be addressed, and when 70 to 80 percent of people are mentally ill that are homeless, you know, we need to take care of it not in our libraries. I'm very sympathetic to the librarians that have to deal with this situation, as well as to the homeless people.

Mr. WARD: And I'd like to add that if you get to know the homeless people who shelter in the library, a lot of them have the same concerns that everyone else does. They want to be in a safe, secure environment, and that's one of the reasons they're in the library.

And I should add that your public libraries are safe places for people to go. They're safe for children. Librarians are pretty savvy about who is in the building and whether those people belong there or not. And although the disturbance and maybe the odor of people may be a little much to take or a challenge, they wouldn't be in the library if they were a danger. Those people would be removed.

CONAN: Susan, thanks very much for the call.

SUSAN: Thank you.

CONAN: We're speaking with Chip Ward, who wrote a piece in the Los Angeles Times Opinion Page about librarians and the homeless. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's see if we can get another caller on the line. This is Rich, Rich with us from Placerville in California.

RICH (Caller): Neal, thanks for having this topic. I'm a former librarian and also, coincidentally, the officer of our local housing group and the friends of the local friends of the library. And my library former colleagues talk about this problem all the time and how they, like your guest, hate the process of having to be policemen in the process.

So I'm very, very pleased to hear some - librarians are powerful people. They've done incredible things around books that didn't get published and things like that, and having a librarian bring this kind of thing to the forefront, saying I think basically, you know, don't complain about it, let's do something about it, is very, very heartening. And as a housing advocate, you know, we need more people like him.

CONAN: Well Rich, thanks very much for the call. Appreciate it.

RICH: You're welcome.

CONAN: Bye-bye. Let's go now - this is Mary, Mary with us from New London in Connecticut.

MARY (Caller): Hi, how are you today?

CONAN: Very well, thank you.

MARY: I am on the board of trustees at my church in New London, Connecticut, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation, and we are involved in the Homeless Coalition for New London. It serves the greater New London area. And the homeless in our area have access to housing for nighttime and for showering and also meals, but again, they were in the library all day long. And this is really just not an appropriate place for people to be.

They have needs that can't be met at the library. And we have recently let the coalition use some of our space for a homeless hospitality center that operates six days a week, and the homeless can go there whenever they want to during the day. And there are a whole variety of services that they have access to, including telephone service and a place to receive mail, which is one of the things that the homeless don't have, and it makes it difficult for them to get jobs and other things because they don't have an address.

CONAN: Well, it sounds like a very forward-looking program and an alternative to the library. Unfortunately, I guess not a lot of towns have that.

MARY: Yes, and it hasn't been that difficult to set up. You do need a director, and you need people who are willing to share their space, and it's been a really great program for our community and for our church. So I would encourage other churches or other civic organizations to consider doing this kind of work. It's really very critical.

CONAN: Mary, thanks very much for the call.

MARY: You're welcome. Thank you.

CONAN: So long. Let's see if we can get one last call in. This is Sam. Sam's with us from Denver.

SAM (Caller): Hello.

CONAN: Hi, Sam.

SAM: Is this me?

CONAN: Yeah.

SAM: Okay, cool. Yeah, I just kind of wanted to tell a story about a time -because about five years ago, I was homeless. I was on the streets for about eight years total. And there was a time - and I'm in Denver, and that's where I was homeless at as well - and I walked into the Denver Public Library, right in downtown, and I'm not unusual, and like before I even got in the door, they would like, turn me away effectively.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SAM: I was just kind of curious what like - I mean, what your guest has to say about that.

CONAN: Chip Ward?

Mr. WARD: Well, again, we respond to people on the basis of their behavior, not their appearance or their status. So, you know, when people complain to us and say what are they doing in here, I say well, what have they done wrong? If you don't violate a law, if you haven't violated the library's policy or rules, you get to stay like anyone else. And we'll treat you like everyone else.

We'll serve you, we'll understand your information needs, and we'll try to show you the same respect as anyone else who comes into the library. I think, Neal, it's important that we may have been using the term homelessness a little loosely here. That term, 70 to 80 percent of the people who are homeless are mentally ill - we're actually talking about a subset of chronically homeless people for whom homelessness is a way of life, not just a temporary experience, which is the case for almost all homeless in America today.

CONAN: Sam, evidently you've worked on your problem, so good luck with that.

SAM: Yeah, I was. At least for me at the time, it was more of a political statement than anything else, but I guess - I don't know. It just seemed like it, the fact that - that the fact that I had taken that road to make my political statement really - I don't know, it offended most people, and a lot of people - at least around here - just said you know what? Go away.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Sam, thanks very much.

SAM: All right, thank you.

CONAN: And Chip Ward, thanks for your time today.

SAM: Thank you, Neal.

CONAN: Chip Ward, until recently assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. We have a link to his op-ed on our blog at npr.org/blogofthenation. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.

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