Make Yourself at Home

Want to know why the city is making plans for the homeless downtown? Visit the library, but don't take the kids.

"What are we really here for? Is it for research? Is it for entertainment? Is it to just be a beautiful public building? I think the reason that's been an issue a long time, and the reason it's still an issue, is there's no single answer for this," he says. "We want to be open to the public, but we want to be a welcoming and inviting place for the whole public, not this or that small segment of the public."


Dallas librarians have a good share of problems with patrons, but they handle most of them without calling police, McNeill says. The library has a printed list of "rules of behavior" that librarians distribute to the poorly behaved, sometimes as they are being escorted out the door. The rules include prohibitions on gambling, drinking, "soliciting or giving sexual favors," voyeurism and other things. If anybody needs serious correcting, they can be penalized with a 180-day ban on using the library, McNeill says.

"We really do focus on behaviors and getting people to really follow our rules of behavior, and that seems to work pretty well," McNeill says. "I think by and large, you know, people do follow our rules...We don't give out a lot of them."

Clockwise from top: Kyle Frey, 44, who describes himself as homeless, rolls a cigarette outside the Dallas public library where he spent a recent Sunday afternoon; a man reads a newspaper on the plaza outside the library--a popular gathering place for the city's homeless; an unidentified man breaks library rules by sleeping and bringing food and drink into the building; and David Maynard, 62, who describes himself as homeless, reads the paper inside the library.
Mark Graham
Clockwise from top: Kyle Frey, 44, who describes himself as homeless, rolls a cigarette outside the Dallas public library where he spent a recent Sunday afternoon; a man reads a newspaper on the plaza outside the library--a popular gathering place for the city's homeless; an unidentified man breaks library rules by sleeping and bringing food and drink into the building; and David Maynard, 62, who describes himself as homeless, reads the paper inside the library.
From left, David Berry, 57, Emmitt Pullen, 55, and Ken Hicks, 55, idle away a Sunday afternoon outside the Dallas central library. The three men say they've spent time on and off the streets of Dallas. At the moment, they say, they are among the on-the-street crowd.
Mark Graham
From left, David Berry, 57, Emmitt Pullen, 55, and Ken Hicks, 55, idle away a Sunday afternoon outside the Dallas central library. The three men say they've spent time on and off the streets of Dallas. At the moment, they say, they are among the on-the-street crowd.

Few regular staff librarians would talk for this article, and none of the librarians contacted at the library would agree to be named. One, who initially agreed to be identified, later decided she just didn't want library administrators to know who she was. But she had plenty to say about the disturbances.

"We talk about this all the time...They come, they bathe in there. They do everything. I'm serious. From the time the library opens at 9 o'clock until it closes at 9 p.m., they do whatever they want to do," she says.

The librarian, who is not new to the library, says that after working at the central library for only about three months, she seriously considered quitting. She just did not think she would have to put up with so many nontraditional librarian duties.

"I knew it was downtown. I knew it was a big place, and I knew that homeless people were down there, but I didn't know that the library would be the way that it is. It's pathetic. Seriously," she says. "I wanted to be transferred because it was getting ridiculous."

She says she has often seen patrons in fights, urinating on themselves and using the library's public restrooms for things other than what they were intended. One time, she says, she walked in on a woman stark naked at a sink--not an uncommon sight.

"I went in and said, 'What are you doing?' She was like, 'You want to fight me? You want to fight me?' I said, 'You need to put your clothes on. You're not supposed to do this. I don't care what you need to do, but you've got to leave.'"

McNeill agrees that the Dallas main library has its share of problems, but things are far better than they were before an anti-sleeping ordinance eight years ago eliminated the problem of the homeless extensively using the library's front plaza to bed down. Being kept out of the library for three months is no small thing to someone who lives on the street, he says.

"The problem is definitely on the decrease," McNeill says. "We've sort of figured out how we can strike a balance a little better and be open and welcoming to everyone in the city of Dallas...We've gotten some more concrete things that we can do that have led to the ratio being a little more like real life than real life in a shelter."

The unnamed librarian disagrees. She says the library's administration tends to try to ignore most problems and to pretend things are getting better when the truth is that they are not.

She says: "We tell our supervisor and they say, 'Well, it's nothing. It will be a better day tomorrow.' But it's going to be the same day. Nothing's going to change."


At public and university libraries from Seattle to New York, complaints about the homeless abound. Hardly any libraries, large or small, seem to be able to avoid the problem. Before he came to Dallas, McNeill says, he worked for a 2,000-square-foot library in Humble where just one apparently mentally ill woman affected all of the library's users.

"We had there a homeless woman who was clearly mentally ill who came to the library every single day almost the whole six years I was there," he says. "She would mostly just sit in the chair, talk to herself, wave her arms around; she didn't bathe that often, and we only had seating for eight people. When you have somebody taking up one of those chairs you know had a bigger impact than one person in this building."

Wayne Wiegand, a faculty member at Florida State University's school of information studies, says questions about library patrons who might seem undesirable are nothing new. Immigrants, unemployed and minority populations have been targeted as a nuisance to libraries about as long as libraries have been around, he says.

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