Make Yourself at Home
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.
A fortyish man wearing a wrinkled baseball cap, jeans and a dirty nylon jacket steps into an elevator at the Dallas central library and directly in front of the panel of buttons. He insists on pushing the buttons for the others in the motley group assembled on board, including an unshaven man with a newspaper under his arm who emits grunts and a distinct smell of bourbon.
"Second floor. Ladies lingerie," the man hogging the buttons says. He grins and looks around. No response.
"Third floor. Ladies lingerie," he says at the third floor, again looking for a reaction. The joke meets the same reception, and he walks off.
On the fifth floor, men use the library's Internet computers, some to view pornographic Web pages. A motherly looking woman in white tennis shoes, shorts and a T-shirt stands at the help desk asking about using a computer. The librarian gives her the number of one available.
"That's the same one that I had yesterday," she says. "I hope the stinky guy isn't sitting next to me again."
Downstairs, a large man in dreadlocks and an overcoat way too heavy for a day with temperatures in the upper 80s lopes through the tiled lobby toward reading tables. What one librarian calls the "socially marginalized," otherwise known as homeless street people, occupy chairs at most tables.
One man in a baseball cap and ratty clothes, carrying a stained but full canvas shopping bag, sits with his elbows on a table resting his chin and face on both hands. He looks straight ahead blankly. He doesn't sleep. Sleep isn't allowed in the library or around it anymore. The man suddenly stands up and to no one in particular says, "Sheeeeit," and walks toward the exit.
This is the J. Erik Jonsson Library, the city's flagship public library, and no matter where you call home, what reality means to you or how bad you smell, as long as you stay awake and sober you can always come here. The result, according to librarians and police, are bathrooms that are sometimes beyond peep-show-booth disgusting, where homeless men and women bathe at sinks, write obscenities on the walls or worse. Men and women with little else to do in a downtown short on services sprawl about the brick plaza outside the entrances with their bags and frequently engage in drunken arguments and brawls.
During the past 12 months, Dallas police were called to the library's address 117 times. Complaints include thefts, sexual and physical assaults and vandalism. A sampling of the more serious reports seems to indicate the library's patrons have had encounters that would scare just about anybody, hardened by the streets or not.
Last July, a security guard was called to the library's eighth floor in response to a report of a man sleeping. The guard woke the man and took him to the elevator. Once the doors closed, the man attacked and beat the guard unconscious.
In October, a 20-year-old woman was using a library computer to access an Internet chat room when the message, "I'm going to hunt you when you leave the library," appeared on her screen, one police report says.
Last month, a 20-year-old woman told police that she was in the library when someone came up to her, started yelling at her and then slapped her face and ran.
Also during the year, a child was sexually assaulted (details of the case were withheld by police), and there were numerous reports of men publicly masturbating.
Librarians generally avoid speaking out about how the right of the homeless, drug-addicted, alcoholic or mentally ill to inhabit public libraries can make it uncomfortable for themselves or patrons. Recent additions of Internet-access computers and easy access to pornography haven't improved things at public libraries during the past few years either. (The library is still assessing the effect of a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that upheld a law requiring anti-porn Internet filters at libraries receiving federal money.)
At libraries of all sizes, the Internet has opened up new avenues for street people, in some cases providing their only identity and stable place in the world, homeless advocates say. But it isn't uncommon for "marginalized" patrons also to view graphic pornography, something that leads to the occasional confrontation with a librarian or report of a patron's open fly and exposed penis. Some of those close to the issue say that all of the bad images and real-world street person encounters are calling the public library's very mission into question in Dallas and elsewhere.
"The new user population, the new patrons as it were, is displacing the serious, the established, the kinds of patrons that the library is actually there to serve in the first place," says Blaise Cronin, dean of the school of library and information science at Indiana University. "What seems to be happening in some institutions is that the library's role or mission has been transmuted into that of a social welfare agency by default and that there is little those who are the public face of librarianship can do about it."
Dale McNeill, public service administrator for the Dallas library, concedes that street people are sometimes a problem but says today's libraries must try to balance public needs, which include the needs of the homeless, with the public good provided by a library. Homeless patrons don't always help the library's effort to cultivate an image of a serious research facility that is welcoming for families, but, he says, librarians are trying their best to live with the problem and really have no other choice.
"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."
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.
"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.
"It will have computers that people can use to access the Internet. There will be more washers and dryers, more restrooms. Restrooms will be open 24 hours," she says. "This time we have a lot more information about who the homeless are than we did in 1988, and other cities have done this. We should be able to actually do something to help out at the library."
Cities such as Baltimore have invited social service agencies into libraries, and others, like Seattle, are about to embark on campaigns to convince voters to do almost exactly what Dallas is doing. Andra Addison, communications director for the Seattle Public Library, says there is an effort under way to finance a men's center that would have computers and showers and be open for long hours. They are hoping that would provide an alternative to the library.
"We don't have a day facility for homeless men, and that's really the issue that we find here," she says. "It's difficult, especially if you are in a major city, and there aren't too many places that have their doors open to everyone all the time."
Boudreaux says from everything they've learned and studied in and outside of Dallas, they know for a fact that their city is not unique. From looking at other cities, they have also seen what works and what doesn't. A perpetually open facility is seen as a necessity, she says.
"We're not in uncharted waters," Boudreaux says. "There's a lot of others that have recognized a need for those 24-hour type of facilities."
One homeless man at the library who identifies himself as "A.D." says if the shelter is built at all, it certainly will be far from downtown and worthless to them. But it probably won't be built.
"'It's gonna happen' is different from 'It's happening' or 'It's in the works,'" he says. "That's political talk...We ain't doing shit."
A master plan for the central library was financed by voter-approved bonds in 1998 and released in 2001 and is supposed to guide the library through 2010. The plan discusses in a philosophical sense what the main library branch should represent as the library system's "flagship" and who should want to go there.
"The J. Erik Jonsson Library will become a world-class facility that is both a vital downtown branch and a highly respected research library," the plan says in part. "It will be a reinvigorated cultural center and a major 'destination experience' for the City of Dallas." The central library will also get a boost from the bond package city voters approved this year. It allocates $55.5 million for many libraries in the Dallas library system, including the central library.
When manager McNeill talks as he walks through special areas of the library such as the Shakespeare first folio and the Declaration of Independence exhibit--where a couple were caught having "deviant sex" last year--you can tell he's proud.
He wants the library to assume a prestigious place as a research facility. He beams when he describes what the library has to offer serious researchers. He says he's also pleased that the library can assist the homeless with information that may help them find a place to stay, live or work.
"We're supposed to provide research; we're supposed to provide information; we're supposed to provide entertainment; we're supposed to be a beautiful building that the city can take pride in," he says. "We're supposed to do all of that all at once and welcome the whole community, everyone who wants to come and accomplish all of those things at the same time. That's why it continues to be something that's talked about within our profession and outside because it's a pretty tall order for anybody."
He also readily concedes that the library system's flagship is suffering from an image problem that afflicts most of downtown Dallas. Much of the perception is wrong, he believes.
"I think it is true that there are people who have perceptions either of the library or of downtown in general, and the ones I've talked to it's more that they have perceptions of downtown in general," he says. "They are afraid of aggressive panhandling of the type that I've never seen in Dallas, frankly. More like what you see in San Francisco, where it's a whole different art form than it is in Dallas."
Indiana University's Cronin says he received a flurry of responses from librarians after he wrote a column for the Library Journal that addressed the homeless issue head-on. His commentary, "What a Library is Not," in part said that libraries should be taken back from the homeless because the homeless are harming libraries. He received "nearly 100 percent" favorable response from librarians who said words to the effect that it was about time somebody spoke up. He says it's about time that leaders of the nation's libraries started speaking up publicly, too.
"What is, I think for me, most surprising is the gulf between the kinds of concerns and statements that come out of the professional body, the library association and the actual concerns and problems facing workaday librarians," he says. "It's as if the professional leadership, the professional executive bodies, the professional associations simply are behaving ostrich-like. They don't want to acknowledge that the problem exists. They don't produce solutions. They don't induce common sense. They leave it to, in many cases, the lowest-paid workers in the library system to deal with both the literal and figurative 'shit.'"
Oddly, though, librarians are "a group that prides themselves on openness, transparency, freedom of information, access to information, multiple viewpoints, multiple perspectives, diversity, all of that stuff that's politically correct and fashionable," he says. "Yet they don't feel free under the prevailing regime and in their own professional climate to say what they actually feel because they may be disciplined or punished in some way. That tells you something about the power of the prevailing political correctness within the profession."
Cronin says the librarians are not supposed to be ersatz social service workers or police, and libraries should not be compromised by such a small segment of the population.
"What is the purpose of the library? It is to provide readers with an environment in which they can access material, in which they can study," Cronin says. "People want to make a civil rights issue out of it, and libraries seem reluctant to challenge, so there is no attempt to enforce commonly accepted notions of what is acceptable social practice."
McNeill, who does try to enforce those commonly accepted notions with things like his rules sheet, says librarians have learned to deal with the issues of the homeless as part of the job and that few librarians have quit because of the homeless people. He also says that while the issues surrounding the homeless are discussed at staff meetings, it's not just a problem for the downtown library or the librarians.
"It's an issue for our whole society; it's not an issue that our library can really solve, but on the other hand we just can't pretend like one day we're going to wake up and this will miraculously be over," he says.
No, it's not going to be. Just ask the librarians.
"They were outside fighting last night; somebody was still left in the building. We searched for him, and he went out through one of the exit doors," the Dallas librarian says.
In the lobby of the library, while paramedics arrive to treat a woman who appears to be homeless and in need of medical care, Martha Brown, principal of Eagle Advantage Charter School in Dallas, and her assistant Lizette Rodriguez check out materials. They head toward the elevators and underground parking where the homeless are not.
Brown says she is familiar with the homeless at the library from many years of working downtown and is wary of the building because of them. She says she will not go to the downtown library alone and wouldn't bring children there either. She'd take children to a neighborhood library instead, she says.
"That was one of the things that steered me away," Brown says. "I didn't feel like dealing with that."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter