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Don't Book 'Em 

A new library program tries to gently ease the homeless problem out the door

Wednesday, Dec 27 2006
The sun nudged above the buildings on Grove Street last Wednesday morning, and a cluster of homeless people huddled by the entrance to the public library's main branch, waiting for the doors to open. One man sat on a sidewalk grate that was venting warm air. Others clutched garbage bags or duffle bags full of possessions close to their chests. A woman, who gave her name only as Amanda, said she didn't go to a shelter the night before when temperatures plunged to the mid-30s. She doesn't like the shelters, she said, but she sure loves the library.

When security guards opened the doors, Amanda dragged her wheeled suitcase behind her and followed many others through the lobby, bypassing the elevators that go up to the book stacks and heading for the first-floor bathrooms. Signs next to the bathroom doors declared, "SINKS ARE FOR HAND WASHING ONLY" and included a list of shelters and facilities that offer free showers. After her morning ablutions, Amanda intended to find a quiet nook where she could doze for a while. Later in the day, she wanted to use the Internet and read a little, she said. She's a big science fiction fan.

Amanda's activities point to the main library's dual function — it's not just a repository for knowledge, it's also a daytime homeless shelter.

After years of complaints about the situation from staff and patrons, the library administration has taken steps this fall to deal with the homeless directly. While library officials might prefer to rhapsodize over reading lists, instead they must divert their attention to the homeless who consider the library a warm, quiet sanctuary.

This being San Francisco, there will be no Draconian measures. "We want to be clear, homeless individuals are welcomed to the library," said City Librarian Luis Herrera. He's hoping that new homeless outreach teams combined with ramped-up security will change the atmosphere without infringing on anyone's civil liberties. But while the new security measures may prove effective, the sensitive attempt at homeless outreach seems like it might be a touch too gentle: The program has been up and running for almost three months, during which time only one man has been placed in a supportive housing program.

A public safety report the library put out in September documented the existing problems; staff at the main library complained about homeless patrons watching pornography on the Internet, performing sex acts and taking drugs in the bathrooms, and stalking employees who reshelve books. The report said that people with strong body odors often make other patrons and staff members uncomfortable, and that oversized bags sometimes contain vermin. Staff members were reluctant to appear ungenerous or unwelcoming, but resentment had built up among librarians who said they were being forced to act like social workers or police officers.

Other cities, when faced with similar problems, have taken sterner measures to keep the number of homeless patrons down. The public library in Washington, D.C., got sued in the '90s for prohibiting people with an "objectionable appearance." In the last two years, Houston, Dallas, Seattle, and San Luis Obispo have all begun evicting people who smell bad from their libraries. In Worcester, Mass., library officials recently decided that homeless people could only check out two books at a time (instead of the regular limit of 40) because the library was losing books to homeless patrons who they couldn't locate — but a lawsuit and wave of outrage quickly changed their minds.

The San Francisco Public Library does have behavior guidelines that prohibit most of the offensive actions staff members complain about, they just haven't been enforced. Police Sgt. Patrick Kwan, on temporary assignment at the main library, is updating the guidelines slightly, but mostly he's simply instructing security guards to abide by the existing rules. If someone is asleep at a table, the guard should first check that they're not having a medical crisis, he explained, then ask them to step outside for some fresh air. Drug use or sexual activity is grounds for expulsion from the building, and any kind of verbal or physical abuse will get a patron barred from the library for a period of time.

As for the smell factor — turns out that one is on the books in San Francisco as well, says Kwan. "If you do have a strong, emitting odor, you're not necessarily barred for the day, but you have to go somewhere, clean it up, do what you need to do, and then you're welcome to come back."

With all of the library's good intentions of matching the heavy hand of security with a helping hand from outreach workers, homeless people are most likely to encounter a security guard. The outreach workers don't approach anyone inside the library, because they're sensitive about making assumptions about who's homeless and they want to respect all patrons' privacy. "Our main goal is to leave their dignity intact and their anonymity intact," says John Flentoil, one of the outreach workers from San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team. "We're not here to roust anyone or target anyone."

Instead, Flentoil and his colleague Linda Duncan hang around the lobby around closing time, on the assumption that homeless people leaving will see their SF HOT jackets and approach. Two more workers will soon come in around opening time; the combined cost of the outreach program is $50,000 per year. Flentoil and Duncan also go outside to walk the perimeter of the building, where people often cluster, dogs and shopping carts in tow. They were outside when Flentoil encountered the lone man that they've set up with supportive housing so far.

"Is one person a good track record for the library? Of course that doesn't sound good," said Rajesh Parekh, director of SF HOT. The team has requested about 10 supportive housing spots since October, Parekh said, but unfortunately there aren't enough spots for everyone, and the most gravely ill or disabled get first dibs. "Outreach is good, but it doesn't do any good unless you have something else to offer people," he admits. He adds that it takes a while to build trust; he hopes that when homeless library users get accustomed to the outreach team, they'll seek out help.

First, however, the homeless people need to know that the outreach workers are there. The library, in its careful attempt to respect homeless patrons' right to be left alone, may be missing an opportunity to leave them better off.

About The Author

Eliza Strickland


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