Homeless in the libraries oh my!

This was originally posted on A-librarian list by Chris Dodge. Thanks Chris, Martha Furman, Danielle Maestretti, and Sandy Berman!

Homelessness and libraries have been much in the news of late. What burns me is that we'd rather ban people from reading (or even just hanging out somewhere) rather than dealing with the real problem: a society that condones and perpetuates homelessness by its inaction. *sigh*

Society of Wimps

Not to minimize the issue of homelessness in general, but I’ll add my spin to this issue:

I’m the assistant director of a religiously-affiliated, small university in the Midwestern US. I won a grant a couple of years ago to allow free WiFi in our building, and in the same year, our city granted us with funds to allow free, public-access stations in our building as well. These new programs gained the interest of homeless folks in town, so they started coming to use our services. No problem.

Needless to say, our school does not tolerate certain types of online entertainment. As a result, eventually many homeless patrons were banned from the library.

Some homeless patrons remain as active users today, but my problem is the way some of the university staff (mostly our security staff) refer to these people in conversation. Dare I remind folks (and I do whenever I can) that my school is supposed to be religiously-affiliated. Remember, “Love thy neighbor as thyself?

Homeless in the library

There are various dynamics at work here. One is that a caring and competent society looks after its' weaker members, because the society should. The other side of the dynamic is that some, if not many of the homeless persons I see daily in my library are, without equivocation, organically demented and ill. That's not a value judgement or fear of the unknown - it's a statement of a clinical fact. Those folks should be incarcerated where hey can be medicated and have care taken of them, not given free money to wander the streets. Money that could be used to help them is instead paid to replace what they damage and steal, or to pay police to come haul them away after an assault. Please don't take this as a screed - I have a close relative who is in such a situation. I have compassion. But (again the flip side) a tiny percentage of people cause 99 per cent of the problems. And jobs, or a non-Bush presidency, or prayer won't help this. There is and was a reason for mandated homes for this type of individual.

On the thread about the homeless

While I am not about to ban people from reading or using our resources, I cannot help but agree with the responder who mentioned there are various dynamics at work. Charity and compassion aside, when these people become threats or security hazards or a nuisance to other library users, they have to be dealt with and/or removed like anyone else who was a threat, security hazard or a nuisance. I work in an academic library in a metropolitan campus, and we attract our fair share of homeless. Being close to the local courts and the prison means we also get a fair share of people just released and such. And while I am all for access, within reason (after all, we are an academic institution, which means our constituency is students, faculty and staff first), when they become a problem, they have to be dealt with, not coddled out of some misguided sense of compassion. Do I think society should be doing a better job about taking care of those who need it? You bet I do. Do I think I or my colleagues should be put at risk because one of those mentally unhealthy people decide to either make a scene or threaten us physically? No, and I have no compunction about calling the campus police to deal with it. If it makes lack compassion in the eyes of some here, so be it. But along with providing free access and so on, a measure of safety should be in place as well.

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