The Shelter of the Library

This commentary was originally published by Michael McGrorty at Library Dust (November 29, 2004). It is reprinted here with his permission.

In his book Tell Them Who I Am, sociologist Elliot Liebow assembles an archive of testimony, rendering homeless women in simple, natural colors that speak the harsh details of that precarious existence. The lives of the homeless, Liebow shows, are a search within an escape: a seeking for shelter and safety in the chaos of perpetual flight. He depicts homelessness as a sort of refugee life with its denizens as exiles from ordinary society and often enough from their better selves. The book is plain and honest, written as a man would write who knew his task and that he had not long to live or work: Liebow died of cancer the year after its release.

Reading Liebow’s book one becomes aware of the huge spaces of dead time the homeless must fill, even those fortunate enough to have access to a bed after dark. Much of the time they simply have nothing to do but kill the hours of the day. Being homeless is a dangerous occupation and there aren’t many safe places to hide from its perils. One of the few is the public library.

Homelessness is a term of summation: it describes the last phase of a variety of disorders, more often than not existing in combination. Homelessness is a result, an outcome. When you see a homeless man or woman in your library you are looking at a human being like any other patron, but one who runs a gauntlet of calamities. Everybody comes to the library for something, but the homeless come seeking the most essential thing—survival, a safe place to preserve themselves until their next battle with the streets.

Liebow’s women are shown the door of their shelters after breakfast. Those without jobs often gravitate to the library, which will not surprise anybody who has ever worked in a downtown branch. In many towns the public library has become a day-care center for homeless people. Because of what these special patrons bring with them, they present a difficulty for the library that is like no other.

There are three parts to the problem of homeless library patrons, only one of which is addressed to any substantial degree. The homeless themselves are inspected, monitored, regulated to the extent possible and policed out when they do not conform to regulations. All of this is a distraction (and an expensive one) from the other duties of the library staff.

I think it is a shame that the library in many urban centers is seen as a day shelter. That’s a burden that the library was never set up to be—a burden in the sense of an added layer of responsibility that the librarians were not trained for, that the library was not intended to be.

Nancy Pearl

The second part of the homeless problem is less obvious but more significant in terms of impact. Homeless patrons in any concentration drive other patrons away. Nobody wants to search for a book in a mental hospital, or share a restroom with a filthy person performing his ablutions. For that matter, nobody wants to bring children to a building of loafing drunks and addicts. Even when the homeless are quiet, they are visible; frightening and annoying presences to many library patrons. Even if librarians make allowances, extend themselves in kindness and understanding, patrons may not&#8212#8212;and they will vote with their feet.

The library, like many another public place, depends for its functioning upon the cooperation of its users. The homeless often seek things that the library was never intended to provide, and their needs force them to break rules oftener than others. All of this drives the public away from libraries frequented by the homeless. The facility fails its public, not out of any lack of desire or effort but because it has become something it was never intended to be: a shelter for the homeless and their attendant difficulties.

Most recently, we have noted the effects of this usage on our donor population. Many prospective donors are reluctant to give money to support a Central Library that they perceive as a day facility for the homeless. Many donors indicate that they do not feel safe visiting the Central Library or that the Central Library smells of people who have not bathed in some time.

Seattle City Librarian Deborah Jacobs, writing to Councilmember Nick Licata

The third part of the problem is how the homeless affect the staffs of public libraries. A few months ago I wrote a report on a large downtown public library which had combined with a university facility. I was surprised to receive notes from university librarians who were bitter about the change, stating plainly that they had chosen to work in a college library because it did not permit the entry of homeless patrons. My own experience working in libraries has been that many workers bear a strong dislike for situations involving the homeless, which dislike is born of experience rather than conjecture.

Liebow writes,

Fear in all its forms stands out. It seems to take the shape of a giant circle of mutuality: the shelter staff and other providers are afraid of the homeless and the homeless are afraid of the staff; the citizen on the street, the merchant, the householder, and whole communities fear the homeless, and the homeless fear the non-homeless citizens. And to complete the circle, the homeless are afraid of the homeless. Thus, everyone is afraid of the homeless, including the homeless themselves, and what is so terrible and intractable about this situation is that everyone is right to be afraid.

Many public libraries have undertaken measures to reduce the problems that come with serving a large homeless population. One example: Tacoma’s public library restricts patrons to possession of belongings that will fit beneath a seat or measure 18 by 16 by 10 inches—rather like the carry-on luggage rules enforced by commercial airlines.

Public libraries walk a thin line in their dealings with homeless patrons. Policies must be established and enforced fairly, and for good reason. Simply being homeless, unattractive or relatively dirty may not be enough to justify removal.

A public library has enacted a regulation which is admittedly aimed at barring a particular homeless person from its premises because his presence and appearance are considered offensive to others. The danger in excluding anyone from a public building because their appearance or hygiene is obnoxious to others is self-evident. The danger becomes insidious if the conditions complained of are born of poverty.

The public library is one of our great symbols of democracy. It is a living embodiment of the First Amendment because it includes voices of dissent. It tolerates that which is offensive. The library of today frequently provides not only access to books, newspapers, and magazines, but also to concerts, lectures, and exhibits. It is a source of fact and fiction.

One cannot dispute the right and obligation of the library trustees to assure that the library is used for the general purposes for which it is intended. Libraries cannot and should not be transformed into hotels or kitchens, even for the needy. The public has the right to designate which of its institutions shall be utilized for particular purposes.

However, in establishing regulations for use, the conditions imposed must be specific, their purposes necessary, and their effects neutral. Likewise, enforcement cannot be left to the whim or personal vagaries of the persons in charge.

– From the opinion, Richard R. Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for the Town of Morristown (PDF), 958 F.2d 1242, 1259 (3d Cir. 1992)

This much is clear:

The homeless are not going to disappear from public libraries, and they are not likely to enter in any different condition than they have in the past.

The issue of homelessness will continue, at least in the short term, to be addressed in terms of the behavior of individuals in a given setting, as the clash of personal rights versus institutional rules. This approach, perhaps the least productive of any, is characteristic of the early stages in the development of wage and hour law, the legal recognition of trade unions, in the fight for women’s suffrage, and in the voting and general civil rights of racial minorities. This approach guarantees a perpetual stream of battles over the interpretation of local standards against the background of the Constitution and state law, with change occurring through a slow trickle of court decisions over time.

In most other areas of civil rights progress, society sped up this process by pulling the judiciary toward the conviction of the masses. The people have yet to express a widespread view that homelessness constitutes a form of acceptable identity or that its membership is deserving of any special status under the law. In that sense society seems to recognize that the homeless are not so much a class as a collection, a subset of the poor, another group which the nation has yet to favor with the designation of a protected class. In a strange and unfortunate twist, the homeless are considered a group for exclusion and dismissal, and as individuals when they seek rights in society. The result is that they suffer from a lethal anonymity until they challenge the system, at which time they face the machinery of the state and its laws alone.

Even so, there are hints of change:

[Plaintiffs] contend that the city applies these laws to homeless individuals as part of a custom and practice of driving the homeless from public places … they ask that the City be enjoined from arresting homeless individuals for inoffensive conduct, such as sleeping or bathing, that they are forced to perform in public …

… the City’s practice of arresting homeless individuals for performing essential, life-sustaining acts in public when they have absolutely no place to go effectively infringes on their fundamental right to travel in violation of the equal protection clause.

From the decision, Pottinger v. City of Miami, 810 F. Supp. 1551 (SD Fla. 1992)

It is significant that the court observed,

Plaintiffs claim that they are a suspect class based on their involuntary status of being homeless. They argue that, because there are only two types of property in this country, public and private, and because the homeless have no access to private property, they are an insular minority which has no place to retreat from the public domain.

While sidestepping the issue, the court in Pottinger nevertheless offered:

It can be argued that the homeless are saddled with such disabilities, or have been subjected to a history of unequal treatment or are so politically powerless that extraordinary protection of the homeless as a class is warranted.

Though the class status of homelessness is merely a proposition now, a look at the legal history of the country suggests it may become a basis for rights litigation in the future.

Meanwhile, down on the ground in the light of day, the homeless drift into libraries at opening time; many separate worlds come together, sometimes uneasily, but we make of it what we can. In the evening, some of the luckier ones will turn back to the relative safety of the shelters, to pass away the hours until their next run of the gauntlet.

See also: Tally’s Corner, Elliot Liebow’s pioneering study of black street corner culture.

Michael McGrorty
November 29, 2004

The Struggles of Low-Income Job-Seekers

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch (10/17/09) examines the difficulties poor people face when searching for new jobs, including computer access and transportation:

Transportation problems and the absence of a computer in the home, [Washington University social welfare professor Mark] Rank said, are companion obstacles standing between the poor and meaningful employment.

Rank points out that it is hard enough for low-income urban residents to reach Internet access sites.

But urban dwellers, at least, have some access to public transportation.

Not so the rural poor, said Rank, citing a study that determined that 40 percent of the country’s rural areas are not served by public transportation.

Compounding the problem, the study also revealed that 57 percent of low-income rural residents lack access to a vehicle in operating condition …

The “Utopian conversation” about the benefits of cyberspace … “masks just how serious this problem is. And there is no one looking at it.”

For a deeper look at rural poverty and how it is assessed, read “A Critical Review of Rural Poverty Literature: Is There Truly a Rural Effect?,” (pdf) published by the Institute for Research on Poverty.

Another Face of Homelessness

From the LA Times (Bob Pool, 10/16/09, via subscription):

She’s 97 years old and homeless. Bessie Mae Berger has her two boys, and that’s about all.

She and sons Larry Wilkerson, 60, and Charlie Wilkerson, 62, live in a 1973 Chevrolet Suburban they park each night on a busy Venice street.

For the most part, it’s a lonely life—days spent passing the time away in public parks, parking lots and shopping centers around the Westside.

Occasionally, when they need cash, Bessie sits by the side of the road and seeks handouts. She holds a cardboard sign in her lap: “I am 97 years old. Homeless. Broke. Need help please.”

(With thanks to Michael McGrorty for the tip.)

How the “Already Poor” Are Faring

Barbara Ehrenreich, author of Nickel and Dimed and This Land Is Their Land, reports on the U.S. recession:

The human side of the recession, in the new media genre that’s been called “recession porn,” is the story of an incremental descent from excess to frugality, from ease to austerity. The super-rich give up their personal jets; the upper middle class cut back on private Pilates classes; the merely middle class forgo vacations and evenings at Applebee’s. In some accounts, the recession is even described as the “great leveler,” smudging the dizzying levels of inequality that characterized the last couple of decades and squeezing everyone into a single great class, the Nouveau Poor, in which we will all drive tiny fuel-efficient cars and grow tomatoes on our porches …

When I called food banks and homeless shelters around the country, most staff members and directors seemed poised to offer press-pleasing tales of formerly middle-class families brought low. But some, like Toni Muhammad at Gateway Homeless Services in St. Louis, admitted that mostly they see “the long-term poor,” who become even poorer when they lose the kind of low-wage jobs that had been so easy for me to find from 1998 to 2000. As Candy Hill, a vice president of Catholic Charities U.S.A., put it, “All the focus is on the middle class—on Wall Street and Main Street—but it’s the people on the back streets who are really suffering.”

Recession porn? Here’s more.

It Bears Repeating

Russ Baker makes a useful point about how those in power maintain, and profit from, their power:

When this nation’s conversational gatekeepers speak of power elites shaping and dominating a political system, more often than not, they are referring to developing countries. There is a virtual taboo on exploring the true domestic reach of the wealthy, banking interests, the spy services, military and military contractors. Our elected leaders are routinely depicted as singular actors upon the stage of history. And we personalize everything, and get caught up in debate about what are in essence distractions—W’s purported religious conversion, his troubled relationship with his father, the genius of Karl Rove and “evil nature” of Dick Cheney. We prefer to view politics as if it were a sporting competition, and discourage efforts to better understand how elites in our own society maintain their wealth, power and influence.

Balancing Inclusion and Safety in Libraries

The University of Illinois’ News Bureau recently interviewed Barry Ackerson, associate dean and director of the master’s program in the School of Social Work.

Ackerson responds to questions colored by the recent survey published in Public Libraries. The survey suggested librarians were overwhelmingly concerned about mentally ill patrons.

What is your reaction to policies such as those at public libraries that seem to exclude homeless or mentally ill patrons?

I have some very strong feelings about them, but I’m not an unbiased person. My late wife, to whom I was married for 30 years, was an academic librarian, so I have some feelings for the issues that librarians contend with …

If someone is simply wearing old, tattered clothes and hasn’t bathed recently, I firmly believe that people in our society need to respect that that person has a right to live in our community. If they’re bothering other people, it’s a different issue. …

But what if they make other people uneasy or scare other patrons away from public spaces?

… We need to have some very vigorous services because some of these people have been in and out of our systems for a long time, and the services we currently have aren’t meeting their needs.

I’m an advocate of community outreach programs and assertive community treatment. I think social workers and mental health professionals shouldn’t do all of our jobs sitting behind our desks.

Read the whole piece.

More Than Just Race

William Julius Wilson has authored a new book titled More Than Just Race: Being Black and Poor in the Inner City.

In early March, The New York Times Book Review carried Richard Thompson Ford’s positive review:

[Wilson] argues that the legacy of racism and changes in the economy matter more than the dysfunctional culture of the ghetto. And he rejects the argument that the black poor are responsible for their predicament, insisting that an aggressive public policy response is necessary to break the cycle of poverty …

[T]he law’s arm is not long enough to reach bigotry that occurred in the past, nor can it get a grip on the economic and demographic changes that have hollowed out America’s inner cities. The urban poor need remedies that judges cannot order: public and private investment to create jobs that pay a living wage, training to help them learn new skills and understand the job market, and most of all a chance to move into racially and economically integrated neighborhoods where there are better opportunities and healthier cultural norms.

They likewise need a new generation of librarians to tackle these issues with other community partners.

Sudhir Venkatesh at also praised the book:

Critics will complain that Wilson himself has little to offer in terms of policy recommendations. But More Than Just Race contains some clues as to where he may be headed. He emphasizes the advantages of “race neutral” programs. Wilson knows that Americans and their elected leaders are more likely to support initiatives that are not identified with poor blacks. And in this economy, there is no shortage of disadvantaged Americans—white or black—who require employment assistance and supportive services.

He is also partial to addressing joblessness first, despite his insistence that culture matters (and that behaviors don’t change as quickly as policymakers wish). Wilson repeatedly points to the benefits that jobs programs and vocational training have on the cultural front. Stated somewhat crudely, increasing employment will reduce the number of people who might promote or even condone deviant behavior. Change might not occur overnight, and it may not be wholesale, but it will take place.

Same Story, New Generation?

Anna Sussman writes about Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans joining the ranks of the California homeless:

More than 2,000 military personnel return home to California each month. Most have no specialized job experience, education or an easy familiarity with civilian life. And many have post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), making it difficult to get along with friends and family, and almost impossible to hold down a job.

“You feel like the whole world is against you when you get home,” said [Ethan] Kreutzer. “I was sleeping on the sidewalk, whereas I had been wearing a uniform less than a year before.” Soft- spoken and restless, Kreutzer was recruited in a 7-Eleven while still in high school. After five months in Afghanistan, he had a mental breakdown, diagnosed as PTSD. When he returned to the United States, he spent almost four years living on the streets.

Tara McElvey’s piece on the VA’s inadequacies is equally perplexing:

Veterans of wars in Vietnam and Korea, many of whom are over 60, generally receive outstanding care at the VA facilities. Yet the newer patients—soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—are in their 20s and 30s and have a different set of problems. Often, they need help for psychological, not physical, problems.

A study released by RAND Corporation earlier this year shows that roughly 300,000 men and women who have served in Iraq or Afghanistan are suffering from mental illness, particularly post-traumatic stress and depression. The VA has been slow to respond to their needs. Only half of these individuals have sought treatment, and they often experience severe delays or minimal care within the VA system.

If you’d like to find ways to support returning veterans, start with Iraq War Veterans Organization (

The Iraq War Veterans Organization, Inc provides information and support for: Operation Iraqi Freedom Veterans, Global War on Terror Veterans, Operation Enduring Freedom Veterans, active military personnel and family members related to pre-deployment, deployment, and post-deployment issues, as well as service member and family Operation Iraqi Freedom Deployment Readiness problems, information about PTSD, Health issues and Veterans Benefits.

The Iraq War Veterans Organization website has links to information about Department of Veterans Affairs health care, readjustment after deployment, education, employment, military discounts, PTSD issues, support-chat forums, family support and deployment information.

Another group, Iraq Veterans Against the War (, has a helpful page on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

The Obama/Biden Poverty Platform

As the country awaits the transition of power from the Bush administration to the Obama administration in January, take the time to examine the President-Elect’s approach to poverty issues:

“Fighting Poverty and Creating a Bridge to the Middle Class” [PDF]


Provide a Tax Cut for Working Families: Barack Obama and Joe Biden will restore fairness to the tax code and provide 150 million workers the tax relief they deserve. Obama and Biden will create a new “Making Work Pay” tax credit of up to $500 per person, or $1,000 per working family. This refundable income tax credit will provide direct relief to American families who face the regressive payroll tax system. It will offset the payroll tax on the first $8,100 of their earnings while still preserving the important principle of a dedicated revenue source for Social Security. The “Making Work Pay” tax credit will completely eliminate income taxes for 10 million Americans. The tax credit will also provide relief to self-employed small business owners who struggle to pay both the employee and employer portion of the payroll tax. The “Making Work Pay” tax credit offsets some of this self-employment tax as well.

See also the campaign’s Poverty page.

It will be interesting to follow how these and other proposed changes (big and small) play out in 2009.

Poverty in the News

  • Number of working poor increased from 2002 to 2006
  • Midwest and Northeast see increase in concentrated poverty
  • Teenagers comprise only 7% of the low-wage workforce
  • Right-wing radio blames poor for country’s financial mess
  • Minnesota foreclosures creating more homeless students
  • New Jersey food banks struggle to keep up with demand