Chip Ward on the “Chronically Homeless”

An article by Chip Ward, the recently retired assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, has stirred public and professional discussion.

An abridged version of “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School: The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless” appeared in the L.A. Times (4/1/07). The complete article is available via NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” (4/2/07) interviewed the author, and so did LibVibe (4/5/07).

Ward describes the frustrations of library staff who interact with people living on the extreme edge of homelessness—“street people” suffering profound physical and mental health problems, who never manage to escape their circumstances.

His workplace anecdotes no doubt resonate with many librarians, particularly the profiles of “peculiar” patrons.

Ophelia sits by the fireplace and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at no one in particular. She gazes out the large window through the two pairs of glasses she wears, one windshield-sized pair over a smaller set perched precariously on her small nose. Perhaps four lenses help her see the invisible other she is addressing. When her “nobody there” conversation disturbs the reader seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles at the woman’s discomfort, and explains, “Don’t mind me, I’m dead. It’s okay. I’ve been dead for some time now.” She pauses, then adds reassuringly, “It’s not so bad. You get used to it.”

The author ably identifies the inadequacies of our existing social safety net and the double standards we embrace.

Our condemnation of transient-style alcoholism is both hypocritical and snobbish. If you are unhappy and caught without a prescription in America, you self-medicate. Depressed lawyers do it with fine scotch. An unemployed trucker might turn to beer or meth. Anxiety-ridden teachers or waitresses might smoke pot or order just one more margarita. Indigent people who want relief from their demons drink whatever is available and affordable or swallow whatever pills come their way.

Ward shows that librarians are not the only ones eager for better answers to the “archipelago of despair.”

Paramedics are caught in the middle of this dark carnival of confusion and neglect. In the winter, when the transient population of the library increases dramatically, we call them almost every day. Once, when I apologized to a paramedic for calling twice, he responded, “Hey, no need to explain or apologize.” He swept his arm towards the other paramedics, surrounding a portable gurney on which they would soon carry a disoriented old man complaining of dizziness to the emergency room. “Look at us,” he said, “we’re the mobile homeless clinic. This is what we do. All day long, day after day, and mostly for the same people over and over.”

He also rightly notes that jails and prisons now house significant numbers of the mentally ill due to our nation’s pathetic healthcare system and the lack of affordable housing.

The cost of keeping a mentally-ill person in jail is not cheap. In Utah, it turns out to be the yearly equivalent of tuition at an Ivy League college. For that kind of taxpayer money, we could get our mentally ill off the streets and into stable housing environments with enough leftover for the kinds of support services most of them need to stay off the street.

Again, the right thing to do for them may also be the most practical choice for us. We could solve the problem for less than it costs to manage it. In the meanwhile, they will cycle between the jail and the library. Is it any wonder that they crave a calm and entertaining environment after weeks, months, or years of fear and noise in jail? From a taxpayer’s perspective, however, it seems cheaper to warehouse them in the library, between stints in jail—or simply to pay no attention to where they are at all.

Overall, Ward’s piece is well-informed and points to new strategies like Housing First, which prioritizes stable housing first and support services second.

Readers must remain alert to the fact that he is describing a small segment of the homeless population. The behavior and descriptions here can easily reinforce certain stereotypes that do not apply to the majority of homeless individuals.

To date, too much library literature has focused complaint on Ward’s “street people” and too little has addressed how libraries can thoughtfully serve all low-income people.

What are libraries doing for those who do not create such sensational portraits, who are otherwise indistinguishable from anyone else, but who nonetheless struggle with poverty and social exclusion?

What kind of relationships do we have with community agencies that serve low-income people? What input do we seek directly from low-income people and how do we collaborate with them?

And outside the library, what are we doing to prompt community change and to create a more humane world?

Ward’s closing paragraphs bear close scrutiny:

The belief that we are responsible for each other’s social, economic, and political well-being, that we will care for our weakest members compassionately, should be the keystone in the moral architecture of a democratic culture …

We will let Ophelia and the others stay with us and we will be firm but kind. We will wait for America to wake up and deal with its Ophelias directly, deliberately, and compassionately. In the meantime, our patrons will continue to complain about her and the others who seek shelter with us. Yes, we know, we say to them; we hear you loud and clear. Be patient, please, we are doing the best we can. Are you?

Second Life is preoccupying a lot of librarians right now. Perhaps we could do more to help fellow citizens obtain a Better Life.

And also …

If you’ve read this far, check out artist Peter Bagge’s take on homeless people, “Bums”:

It was just reported by the AP that paroled sex offenders were forced to live under a bridge in Miami. One of the men had “trouble charging the GPS tracking device he is required to wear [because] there are no power outlets nearby.”