Banning people in the library

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Banning people in the library

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Abr 2, 2007, 3:47pm

Talk of the Nation ( had a discussion this afternoon with the former ass't librarian in Salt Lake City about homeless people in the library.

Libraries are often refuges for the homeless, and many library directors have tried to accommodate them by responding to behavior, not appearance or social status.

Some patrons feel nervous about the homeless in the library, many of whom have mental health "issues."

But one patron said he found a homeless guy muttering to himself a lot less annoying that people talking loudly on cell phones.

It's an interesting discussion. NPR usually archives the stories within 24 hours if you want to give a listen.

Abr 2, 2007, 4:47pm

But one patron said he found a homeless guy muttering to himself a lot less annoying that people talking loudly on cell phones.

Many years ago, if you saw someone walking down the street apparently talking to himself, you assumed he was crazy. Nowadays, you just figure he's talking on his cellphone.

Abr 2, 2007, 11:12pm

The Multnomah County Library doesn't ban the homeless. Not in so many words, any way...

Amongst other things, the "Rules Governing the Use of Your Library" prohibit:
~Disturbing others because of offensive body odor

Wow, it must really suck to be the librarian who has to say, "Excuse me, sir? You'll either need to retire to the bathroom and apply some deodorant or vacate the premises. You stink."

Abr 2, 2007, 11:44pm

Years ago, I spent 10 years commuting to lower Manhatten (where I worked) from NJ (where I lived). I'd walk from the PATH Trains, in the bowels of the WTC, up to the street level and to the office. Often, I'd have to work late -- like 2 or 3 in the morning, after starting the day by being in the office at 9 am. When it got cold, and in NYC, down by the Battery, and Broad St, it gets bitterly cold because there's nothing to stop the icy winds from picking up moisture from the harbor, the homeless did not stay outside. They slept in the WTC. Thousands of them curled up on the floor, and one or two dozen Police officers patrolling these hallways, keeping a path clear in the middle, carefully intervening in the rare disturbance, knowing how outnumbered they were and showing tremendous respect for these otherwise lost souls. The odor in these hallways was acidic enough to cause your eyes to water, and if that didn't get you, the sight of the mass of people did. Those were the longest quarter-mile walks I've ever done. The Police would start waking them up around 6 am, and they'd pour out of the WTC like rats, and try to find a heat vent until the sun came up. Somehow, the WTC was able to replace the air in those lower levels before the commuters appeared.

I fully understand the aversion to the homeless. They smell, and they look dirty, and for the most part, they can't see their way out of their particular circumstances. These folks need help, and a lot more than a Library can offer. When I had the time and the money to spare, I'd buy a breakfast (to go) in the WTC, and find a homeless person on the way to the office and give it to him.

I think patrons in the libraries ought to find a bit more compassion.

Editado: Abr 3, 2007, 2:58am

It seemed the speaker today was trying to increase awareness of a wider difficulty. Librarians have been given a mission beyond the scope of our training or funding. We are filling a gap in our social programs while we serve the information needs of all patrons. He makes the point that some of those needs are conflicting. His descriptions are on target. When people bathe in the restrooms, security guards distribute coupons for showers at swimming pools. When upholstery can't be cleaned, we replace it with wooden benches. Sometimes people wait until closing to ask about shelters. We stay late making phone calls and, if those are full, suggest the safest public place to spend the night.

Talk of the Nation on the site has included a link for listening to "Libraries Become Temporary Refuge for Homeless" (approximately 20 min.) ...And a blog with comments at

On Sunday, the speaker's Op-Ed was published in the LA Times:,0,5039843...

A longer version of his article is available:

Abr 3, 2007, 2:28am

I don't agree with our library's rule about "offensive body odor" -- some folks can't help it due to lack of bathing facilities or due to a health problem. I agree with WholeHouseLibrary that everyone could be a little more understanding. I also agree that homeless folks shouldn't have to depend on the library on a freezing cold day. Shelters need the money to keep their doors open during that kind of weather.

Abr 3, 2007, 10:19am

Compassion is a good thing. But if libraries are to become shelters, what will we do for libraries?

When I first moved here (spread out urban area), I noticed a few people obviously spending the day in the library, reading or pretending to read newspapers. Fair enough. But now I'm afraid to go to local branches. Not because of "odors" or being made "uncomfortable," but because of "disruptive behavior" which can on occasion pose a physical threat. Sure, the overburdened library staff can call the cops if things escalate. But a friend who is a branch head in the next county tells me that the cops don't appreciate being called too often, so she has actually disarmed "patrons" herself.

Abr 3, 2007, 5:01pm

I live in San Francisco, which has a sprawling homeless population as well as a sizable library system. The main branch of the SF library now employs two social workers who provide homeless patrons with referrals to shelters, showers, etc.

Editado: Abr 5, 2007, 12:40am

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Editado: Abr 4, 2007, 2:22pm

Isn't one problem that the shelters have certain rules for their "patrons," and that many homeless people prefer not to go to them?

I thought that San Francsico legislated social policy for the world. :-) Why on earth doesn't the city/county hire social workers, instead of letting the economic burden fall upon the Library system?

Abr 4, 2007, 2:54pm

Does our obligation begin and end at expelling the odorific patron from the library because it's not our job to do anything more?

I do everything I can to serve all people in the library--business people, families, unemployed, mentally ill and unescorted children. Whoever approaches me receives the same attention. Their information needs are answered as best I can with the resources available. And I stay late with calls to the homeless shelter and children calling parents who dumped them off. Recently one of the regulars-a homeless persons died on the property. We held a memorial service.

This isn't unique. Librarians have a tradition of public service and we have earned it. It isn't all sitting quietly and reading journals. We attend workshops on workplace violence and stay alert for incidents that threaten other users. Some of us scrub bathrooms because custodial help is only available after hours if all. Occassionally, someone is an understaff facility is attacked. Meanwhile, if we make an effort to draw attention to a social problem that is everyone's concern, we're accused of denying that it is in our job description. That's just another aspect of librarianship.

Abr 4, 2007, 3:21pm

Clearly, the librarian who had to disarm a patron herself was dealing with someone who had a psychological disorder.

Well, yeah!

And from the stories I hear from librarians, psychological disorders are par for the course. So should children be doing their homework in a building in which people with psychological disorders are camped out? Do the most liberal and socially conscious people send their children off to enjoy such experiences, or is it only the children of the parents who can't afford some alternative who get to watch all the fun, and duck under the desks if a "patron" "acts up"?

Abr 4, 2007, 7:27pm

I think if you listen to the NPR interview with Chip Ward you'll see that the library has some pretty sensible guidelines.

Patrons are evicted if they are disruptive, high or intoxicated.

A librarian from the St. Louis area called in and said that a policeman patrolled the library.

A church group in Massachusetts has set up a safe house for the homeless and works with the library to get people there.

I live in a small town and we don't have homeless patrons, but women and children who seem to be on the lam from abusive husbands/dads sometimes turn up.

Librarians have posted the number of the local domestic violence shelter in the restroom. They will also call the shelter if requested by a patron.

I noticed that this winter, there were also numbers for assistance over the holidays and for the food pantry.

Patrons who may be somewhat "different" generally behave in the library. Librarians have only had to call the cops once or twice that I know of to deal with a patron who got belligerent at closing time.

Abr 4, 2007, 9:00pm

It doesn't surprise me that the situation is different in a small town. My experience (and that of my friends) is in urban areas. The police have other priorities, they can't respond in a timely fashion to multiple or frequent calls from dozens of branch libraries.

At the branch nearest to me, the "campers" outnumber those there to use the library and the staff combined. No guard.

Editado: Abr 5, 2007, 12:56am

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Editado: Abr 5, 2007, 4:39am

I think there are positive and negative ways of dealing with these issues. Here is a very good article describing a positive way of interacting with homeless people. Someone in London set up a bookmobile specifically for those who are unable to become library members because they have no fixed address, and has found that the service is much appreciated and rarely abused.

As a librarian, I have been threatened personally by users with mental health issues, and have also had to deal with complaints from library users (and staff) about body odour from people in the library. This unfortunately seems to be what you sign up for when you work with the public. We don't have security guards or anything like that. It would be great to have a social worker here, but I doubt that would ever happen.The important thing for us has been to ensure that procedures are in place to make you feel safe at work without having to bar anyone from the library.

Abr 5, 2007, 6:52pm

>15 pdxwoman:
thank you, I'm glad you replied. I hear actual accusations often enough from citizens, that I was not be sure. When it happens at work, I respond by nicely asking the person how they would like us to correct it and then listen. Perhaps on that day I needed to leave for lunch rather than rant.

Abr 5, 2007, 8:54pm

A bookmobile is a nice idea. But the problem is people camping out in libraries because they have no other place to get warm, or cool, or to sleep it off or pass out in safety, and not because they want to read books.

Abr 6, 2007, 11:56am

i'm fine with homeless camping out at the libraries, it's a relatively harmless place where those of us who are not as unfortunate can have a look, maybe even a conversation with someone in that circumstance. i agree that most of the homeless i've ever seen in our libraries have been a lot less annoying than people who dump their kids and leave them to play as loud as they want, or the occasional businessman or student who has to tell the minor details of their lives to their cell phones.

live and let live, what are the homeless going to do, destroy the books?

Editado: Abr 6, 2007, 1:08pm


It's not "what are the homeless going to do?" The more urgent question is what are the mentally disturbed, who are a subset of the homeless, going to do. Read the prior posts. Talk to some librarians in urban area libraries that do not have guards or social workers on hand, and don't have enough staff --- or get paid enough! --- to function as a police force, or to do the jobs of underfunded social agencies.

If you want to do away with libraries, it seems to me that dumping on them the problems that society doesn't want to deal with is a perfect way to go about it.

Edited to add: I realize that not all who are mentally disturbed are, by a long shot, violent or dangerous. But are librarians supposed to figure out which of the "residents" talking to himself without a cell phone may fall into which category? Psychiatrists get that wrong every day.

Abr 7, 2007, 2:01pm

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Abr 7, 2007, 2:54pm


If you are just looking for some intelligent conversation, I doubt that anyone will eject you. :-)

Abr 7, 2007, 10:04pm

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Abr 9, 2007, 9:43am

I've been known to crash out in a library. I had to walk 20 minutes to the nearest bus station when I lived in Redwood City, CA. The library was even further away (but not so you'd have to take a bus to it). The periodical room had big, soft chairs and a fireplace. I'd grab a pile of books to read, but would eventually drop off, if only for a little while. How can one resist?

Abr 9, 2007, 11:02am

Why have libraries been a magnet for homeless? I've always wondered that. I live in an area where it's not as big a problem to have homeless wandering in the library, but I can see the point of those that don't think it's right or safe to have homeless using the library as a shelter. The library isn't a homeless shelter, that's not its purporse, but it's been thrust upon libraries.

Abr 9, 2007, 12:51pm

Why have libraries been a magnet for homeless

Shelter, safety, restrooms, entertainment..And it's one of the few (if only) places where a person can be without spending money or being questionable.

Abr 9, 2007, 1:57pm

We don't seem to have many homeless people in the library, but then again I'm in a rural area where there are few to begin with. The major problem I see at my local library is unaccompanied kids. There is a policy that children under a certain age (not sure what it is) must be accompanied by a parent, but what do you do if the parent drops the child off at the door and leaves? You can call the parent and wait for them to come back, I guess.

I have seen our librarians have problems with teenagers on cell phones in the library and simply being too loud. This happened one day when I was in the library and the parent was actually mad at the librarian because she asked the teen to talk on her phone outside. I would never dream of using the library as a place to chat on my cell phone. This parent tried to say her child's rights were being violated. Unbelievable!

Abr 9, 2007, 2:15pm


My librarian friend told me that a young kid was (for the fun of it)kicking a 62-year-old female staffer. (Left bruises.) My friend told the boy to stop, or he'd have to leave, and the mother, standing right there, filed a complaint about her child having his rights violated. Can you picture the future career of that kid?

But she says that in her urban library the gang fights are much more of a problem. Takes the police 25 minutes on average to get there, so the staff have to intervene. She is also unhappy that it falls to her to tell teens occasionally fornicating behind tall shelves, while the little kids (dropped off by parents) peek through, to cease & cover up. :-)

Abr 9, 2007, 3:53pm


Our library does not allow any kind of cell phone usage at all once you are inside. I was whispering in the front, by the entrance, in an area far away from the stacks, behind a frosted glass wall, and the security guard found me. I was only on for a second trying to answer a quick question. These guys have radar!

Abr 10, 2007, 3:26am

There aren't that many homeless persons at the library that I work at, but that may be because it's an university library and not a public. Still there are some homeless persons, at one at least who patrons have complained about due to smell, but other than that we haven't had any problems with this patron or others in similar situations and have therefore never had to kick them out. We have, however had to kick out other people. Even at the public that I worked in previously the homeless persons there were usually pretty well behaved and quiet--often more well-behaved than the other patrons!!

As for people sleeping in the library at mine, because it's on campus, students come in all the time between classes for a quick nap, I guess that's what happens when you have a quiet envrionment. I don't see why we should deny homeless persons the ability to do the same thing. The only time it bugs me is when we're closing because we don't have an intercom system and have to go around to each patron individually to tell them we're closing. Some people will sleep really deeply and it's hard to wake them up. Once again though, these usually aren't the homeless patrons who leave promptly and without trouble, again in contrast with the rest of the patrons.

Abr 13, 2007, 11:05am

In general I’m fairly liberal. I do believe that we as a society owe it to everyone to have some basic needs met. Any society, no matter how you design it, will have people who just don’t fit in and who will fall through the cracks to become homeless. Therefore, the people who are fortunate enough to not fall through owe it to those who do to try and help them.

That said I don’t feel that libraries should have any obligation to help the homeless. That is not what they are designed for and it is not their mission. If homeless people want to come in and use the library for what it was intended (learning, reading, information, etc…), I have no issues with them being there. If they are simply using it as a place for shelter, I do have a problem. Libraries are not designed for that kind of use. They don’t have the facilities, staff, budget, or ability to manage these kinds of problems. I’m quite tired of institutions (schools, libraries, and such) being asked to pick up the slack of society. When we ask these institutions to do jobs they were not designed to do, then we can expect less and less from them in the jobs for which they were design.

As inner-city schools have become the one stop shopping for low income families’ medical, psychological, clothing, dietary and various other needs our students seem to learn less and less. First schools started providing free lunches (I’ve got zero problems with that). Then they had to provide free breakfast (I didn’t think much about it at the time). Then they tried to get clothes for kids… doctors came to schools and did exams and vaccines (for free)… eye exams and glasses (free)… dentists came to the schools (free)… psychologists/mental health centers provided counseling (free)… and the list keeps growing. With all this energy and these resources being drained from the mission of schools (to educate), how can we expect them to accomplish their real goals

I see this same slippery slope in the library dilemma. Once libraries concede that they will mange the homeless people’s needs as they arrive, our society will come to expect them to do it and we will begin to think if they are handling that, then why aren’t they dealing with this other problem. The whole thing will snowball.

The homeless issue is one that deserves our attention and these people deserve our respect, but they shouldn’t be allowed to use the libraries in ways which are extremely beyond the designed purpose of these institutions. Just because we (and our politicians) have chosen to nearly abandon the homeless doesn’t mean that libraries have an obligation to pick up that slack. If it does, then in the end, libraries will stop being libraries.

Abr 13, 2007, 12:23pm

Well said, inkdrinker!

That is exactly the issue for both libraries and schools. I will now, uncharacteristically, say nothing more on the matter.

Editado: Abr 13, 2007, 2:38pm

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Abr 13, 2007, 2:44pm

I just wanted to reiterate that LT members are AWESOME. I'm actually enjoying a debate ("discussion") for once. Everyone is so polite even in disagreement.

Everyone give themselves a big hug! Awwwwww!

Abr 13, 2007, 3:50pm

All of what you suggest would be fine if it were as simple as just providing space for someone else to do these jobs. Unfortunately it isn’t that easy. Most of the libraries I’ve ever used are hurting for space to provide the services for which they were intended. Don’t even get me started about schools. I’ve worked in some where many teachers had classrooms the size of an average bedroom and some staff had offices in large closets. Anytime a service is provided in a school it cost teachers teaching time and cost schools money no matter who is paying for the service.

Libraries are places for learning, reading, information use and the like. If you want to change that then by definition you no longer have a library.

Schools are so over stressed it is ridiculous. Adding to that is not a good option in my view. At some point schools stopped being a place of learning and became a state run orphanage from 8-4. As I said, I wasn’t against free food for the kids. Lunch was already a part of the day. Breakfast (regardless of what you may think) does however cost schools. It is an added part of the day. Someone must supervise. It takes away from a teacher’s precious planning time and adds work (which cost money) to the agendas of many other staff. You can say I’m being a cheapskate but schools are already scrambling for every dime they can get.

If libraries should take these people in and let them use the library as a bath, bed, shelter etc… Then why not parks, malls, museums, city county buildings, and so on…?

I’m not saying those services can’t be provided or that they shouldn’t bring the services to the people. I’m saying we need to stop putting any of that burden where it does not belong. I believe (as I said) that we do owe the homeless folks some basics and the same respect that we would give to anyone else, but we don’t owe them (or rowdy teens or any one else who isn’t using the institution for its purpose) our libraries. In my city we have a group that drives around at night and talks to runaways and homeless people out on the streets. This group provides blankets, food, basic medical services, and a variety of other ministrations to this population. I’m all for this group and many others like them. They are bringing the help to the people better than any library could ever even hope to do. The problem isn’t that my ideas aren’t liberal enough or that libraries or any other non-homeless group, business, organization, or other place should or shouldn’t provided services to these people. The problem is that our government(s) refuses to care because this isn’t a population which will vote in elections.

As far as the schools as one stop welfare sites are concerned, my question would be when does the focus become so scattered that education takes a backburner? I would say that it already started to happen for these very reasons and many others.

Abr 13, 2007, 4:13pm

I teach public relations at a state university, and this year's class project was library PR.

I asked students to listen to the NPR program and think about ways they could use homeless people in the library as a positive for libraries.

One pointed out that the NPR program itself was a good start in that it showed compassionate librarians trying to provide services to marginalized patrons.

Another said that perhaps the library could be a collection point periodically for supplies needed at the local homeless center, raising awareness of the problem in the community and its effect on the library in a positive way.

Another wondered if any homeless people had found jobs by using the library's resources and whether a feature about that person's success could help taxpayers understand the impact of the library on the community in positive ways.

Some of the student suggestions weren't feasible, especially those that wanted to expand library services to include soup kitchens and nap rooms.

But I wonder if anyone else here sees some opportunities to help library taxpayers understand what a great bang they get for their library bucks?

Abr 13, 2007, 5:38pm

Message 4: WholeHouseLibrary -- Wow. I had no idea the WTC was so kind to the homeless and actually allowed them to sleep there. Was that before Guiliani cracked down? How much better it is to be kind and accepting than to shun fellow humans.

Abr 13, 2007, 6:02pm

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Abr 13, 2007, 6:23pm

Message 33: pdxwoman -- You make some excellent points. I used to help serve Sunday meals to the homeless -- at the local Democratic headquarters because those were the people willing to serve the homeless. I don't recall any political persuasion going on (though I wish I had tried :) but the meals were always preceded by a pastor's hellfire and brimstone talks. He was a bit heavy and negative for my tastes but the homeless didn't seem to care. I was humbled by how grateful the homeless always were for the food even when, some weeks, it wasn't much more than cold bologna sandwiches with bread from which we often had to pick off the mold. And when we pulled into the parking lot with the food, we had to practically beat off all the customers who ran to help us unload and set up. The homeless I became acquainted with there were often finer than the homeowners I know, always gracious, quiet, friendly, and quick to gently help those among them whose mental faculties were compromised.

Editado: Abr 13, 2007, 7:28pm

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Editado: Abr 13, 2007, 7:31pm

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Abr 13, 2007, 8:06pm

< #37 to my #4

Let's see, that was any time between 1979 and 1989, when I moved here to central Texas....
Ed Koch was the Mayor that entire time, I think. He was a very likeable guy, in some ways very genereous, but he could also be tough as nails when he had to.

Abr 14, 2007, 6:22pm

"The problem is that our government(s) refuses to care because this isn’t a population which will vote in elections."

I said that earlier and it made me laugh as I just reread the thread, because, in truth, many political types don't really care about libraries.

Maio 17, 2007, 12:24pm

Kudo's to the librarians who go beyond their job descriptions, and become humanitarians. While I don't see taking care of the homeless as a library function, it was not unusual to see that in my city as I was growing up. Most of the homeless were actually pretty well known by most people, and no one cared if they read or pretended to read the newspaper or even caught a little doze.
One man, known as Aqualung (due to the beard) was arrested a couple of times a year so that he could be forcibly scrubbed down, hair cut, etc. He was a harmless mentally ill person, and pretty much a fixture in town.
I have found that social services are mostly a joke - they complain of being overworked but I never see them doing a lick of meaningful work.
We just all need to be more compassionate. My aunt takes an extra lunch to share at the park, and I volunteer at the soup kitchen and donate heavily. My mother volunteers at the community food pantry.
Every day I wake up I try to be thankful and remember to share. I think most people do want and try to help those around them.

Out 30, 2013, 6:12pm

What do we do about the people that come in a drop off drugs and needles in the kids section? The people that chase out families with small children because they camp out in the middle of story time and get visibly aroused? The young thugs that have guns in their baggy pants and corner female trying to get in to the library and "hit on her" sexually harass her? My library has 3-4 females that work and they do not do anything to stop any of this, they are too afraid. When they call the cops they don't come sometimes. I was sexually harassed at 0900 by two thugs with guns (Open carry in NM) and was told to fill out a complaint that went where? No where. these people don't pay taxes. They don't follow rules. They return time and again and scare people away. IT is a VERY VERY small town.

I want to appeal to the city to develop some sort of work around to get people banned for bad behavior, and institute a card system maybe, where you can only get i with a library card, that way they can keep others out that have been banned. At the very least they, as a PUBLIC institution, should have access to some sort of hourly situation check to provide safety and security. If misbehaving patrons KNOW the cops come by often maybe they will be less likely to "conduct their business" on the premisses.

Ideas? Thoughts? Help?!


Editado: Out 30, 2013, 7:12pm

That sounds like an awful situation. The only part of it I can be any help of is have storytime in an enclosed room and don't let anyone in that isn't accompanying a child.

My branch has a very good security department that takes care of this sort of thing, but we're a very large city library and it sounds like your system might not have that. They ban people who don't follow the rules, and keep track of them so they can intercept banned patrons that try to return.

We also have panic buttons under the desk that we can press if anyone makes us feel immediately physically threatened.