By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
"When you ask about the homeless, I'd have to point you to the Irish in Boston in the middle of the 19th century, many of whom had no jobs and could by today's definition be called homeless, who would frequent the Boston public library for a variety of reasons," he says. "The same thing happened in the 1930s during the Great Depression. A great many people could be called homeless, and because libraries, public libraries especially, are public places, they were one of the few places that those individuals could go to."
Yet beyond history and culture, Dallas' flagship library perhaps faces an extra burden from the homeless: There are few other places downtown's sizable population of down-and-outers can go--to escape the heat, to kill time, to simply get off the streets for a while. Even a small hitch in the city's thinly stretched social safety net can create an extra burden for the library.
In mid-June, the plumbing at the Day Resource Center, the city's day shelter for the homeless located about a block from the library plaza, needed repairs. To do what had to be done to the pipes, the center had to close restrooms. Shortly after the facilities closed, Karen Boudreaux, manager of homeless services for Dallas, heard from the library.
"One of the ladies from the library called and said, 'We have homeless people now over here washing their hair and trying to bathe,'" Boudreaux says. "When one avenue is cut off, then people have to take care of their basic needs."
To Boudreaux, the relationship between the city's shelter and the library is clear. Boudreaux was director of the Day Resource Center when it first opened in 1988. The original purpose for the center, she says, was to alleviate the problems the library was experiencing with homeless people, and it worked, she says.
"For several years things seemed to go pretty well," she says.
She's noticed that "things" started getting worse at the library and center during the past few years, and the reason is no mystery. Not only was the city's center originally intended for just 100 homeless (it now serves about 300), but the space available for the homeless at the center, the operating hours and the center's budget were all reduced. That also means that the only public restrooms available downtown after 5 p.m. are in the library, she says.
"There have been two additions since 1988. One of them turned the entire upstairs into a compensated work therapy program operated by the Veterans Administration," she says. "The second addition created the Dallas Metrocare Services Community living skills center. Services have grown, but space for people to actually sit has shrunk. I think that's why a lot of the people you see sitting at the library choose not to go to the resource center. It's crowded, and that's just a fact. The population has literally outgrown the center.
"As services came in, space for people to just sit and play cards and, you know, lay their heads down on the table and sleep--they can't do that there now," she says. "I'm sure the library is taking a terrible beating."
According to studies, many homeless also fall into what's known as the "service resistant," meaning they don't want to become a part of the system that could help them get off the street. On a recent day outside the library, a group of homeless men and women sat on one of the library's wide ledges. They railed at the idea that their ranks are filled with drunken drug abusers and said that many of those on the street have at least some college education. The library is the only place downtown where they can get services they need to find jobs and to survive.
"That's our home. That's our place to go when it's hot. That's our bathroom," says Theresa Silk, 27.
Silk, who spent the previous night in a park, says she does not drink or use drugs. She completed more than two years of college before she lost funding and was forced out on the streets. She says she wanted to be a forensic psychologist, "and now I'm stuck out here." They all said the resource center is often not an option. Restrooms are frequently closed, and it has no Internet access.
"Can't take a shower half the time there because it's broken," Silk says. "The resource center is a piece of shit."
At least a part of the solution, or some relief for the library, may be on the way. Dallas voters this spring approved $3 million to build or rehabilitate a homeless shelter for the city. Boudreaux says that unlike the city's existing center, the new shelter will be operated more like the library and with realities of homeless life in mind.
"The new center will have things that the library has, which will be number one, the Internet. We don't have that at the Day Resource Center," she says. "It's such an old building, we're maxed out on telephone lines. But this new facility will have an actual library facility within itself where people can sit down and read.