Monday, March 28, 2005

Libraries and the Homeless

My library has had increasing trouble with the public monopolizing library resources. We are not a public library but an academic one. This means our primary goal is to serve students. The student's needs will always come before all others.

One area of my library has decided that for the rest of the semester to not serve the public anymore. They will not check out materials to the public nor will they allow the public to use their computers. I'm not sure how I feel about this considering that the rest of the library does not have this luxury. I almost hope community members do protest because the excuse that the floor is using for the ban is high demand. The library staff for that floor says that their resources need to be available for students, and that the community members are impeding students from using the equipment. I don't know what it's like at midday, but the equipment is sitting unused for several hours at the beginning of the day and at the end. If no one is using the equipment, I think the community should be allowed to use it.

Keep in mind the actual aim of the ban is to prevent 'homeless' men from using the facilities. I use quotation marks because we don't know for a fact that these men are homeless. They are being profiled I guess you could say. We assume they are homeless because they come to the library everyday usually as soon as we open to the public (7:30am) and sit at a computer to surf the net for hours. Many of the men have poor hygiene and wear the same clothing for days in a row. Several of these men also have behavior issues i.e. being abusive to library staff, viewing porn in a public setting, not heeding library staff's requests.

How to deal with these patrons has become an increasingly difficult issue. We are not talking two or three men. On a peak morning, over fifteen of these individuals have entered the library to use the computers. We only have twenty-six library computers. Most of the men are polite enough to the library staff, but they do abuse their privleges. Playing games, looking at porn, listening to music are not the primary purpose of these computers. We provide the computers for research. Granted, research can be far ranging, but these men are not taking notes while playing Zuma.

A possibly unfair correlation has been made between these patrons and the high instance of theft in our library. No one has been accused, but the general sense of ill will that the association inspires is festering among the staff and students. As a side note, the students do not protect themselves at all. They leave their laptops on a table and go off to class and then they're perturbed that the laptop's gone when they come back four hours later. Never mind the fact that we checkout laptop locks to protect unattended laptops, and no one uses them.

A recent post on the ALA website by the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force, Social Responsibilities Round Table of the American Library Association has me pretty mad. True, a public library's mission is different from an academic library's, but this Task Force seems pretty out of touch. A public library's goal is to serve all patrons. If someone's personal odor is so offensive as to make other patrons unable to be in his or her vicinity, then that patron should be held accountable for impeding those other patrons' use of the library.

The two articles they link discussing policies regarding the homeless seem to me to be very fair and sympathetic to the homeless not "punitive policies clearly targeted at homeless people" or "misguided and at worst [contributing] to the criminalization of poor people". It makes me wonder if the writers fully read the articles.

The logic that the task force uses is negative and prejudiced. The task force says, "Poor hygiene and homelessness are conditions of extreme poverty, not types of behavior." The assumption that every bad smelling person that enters the library is homeless is insulting to the homeless. Many homeless take great pangs to maintain proper hygiene. They do not want every bad smelling person lumped in with them. Bad smelling people can be eccentric millionaires with mansions.

You cannot tell by looking at a person that he or she is homeless. Assuming that every slovenly dressed person or unwashed body that enters the library is someone who is destitute is prejudiced. The fact is many college students don't wash for days, wear clothes they slept in, and think nothing of not brushing their teeth for weeks, but by the task force's reasoning, these kids would be labeled homeless. No, they're stinky mess pots. I would hope that a student whose odor was so offensive as to impact other students' use of the library would be spoken to.

To finally be perfectly blunt, shouldn't homeless individuals be held as accountable as you or me? One type of behavior cannot be forgiven for one group, while other groups are still held accountable, and poor hygiene, drunkenness, and abusive language are all types of behavior. They are not exclusive to the poor, the middle class, or the rich. I was peeved to see this policy objective concerning Library Services for the Poor:
[Promote] the removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges.

You know the best way to not get fees and overdue charges? Bring your books back on time! Heesh, they say they're democratic, but they're categorizing patrons and handling them differently. It's the caste system with poor people put on top. Most of the the policy objectives are good. In fact, I'd support most of them. It's just that first one quoted above.

I know I'm probably coming off as a terrible person, but I am a strong supporter of equal rights for everyone. It's true that we do not have adequete resources for the homeless in this country, and we have an ever increasing population of the working poor, but on the otherhand, I don't have much sympathy for someone who doesn't have anywhere to stay because he's gotten kicked out of two shelters already for breaking their rules. In the end, you just have to throw your hands up and say, "Well, you can't reside here. This is a library."


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