"Always. I have nowhere else to go," Brown, 65, said outside the
U.S. capital's modernist central library after a morning reading
sociology books. "When it's hot, you come here to stay out of the
heat. When it's cold, you come here to stay out of the cold."
Brown is among the hundreds of thousands of homeless people who have
put the almost 9,000 U.S. public libraries, the most of any country
in the world, in the forefront of the battle against homelessness.
Moving beyond their old-fashioned image as book custodians where
librarians shush people for talking too loud, libraries have evolved
to serve as community centers, staffed with social workers and
offering programs from meals to job counseling.
Homelessness is an especially acute issue for libraries as the
United States slowly emerges from the 2007-2009 recession and deals
with stubborn poverty, experts said.
Libraries are magnets for the homeless since they are public, free,
centrally located and quiet. They also are safe, a major draw given
that 337 homeless people have been killed in hate crimes in the last
15 years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.
"(Libraries) are on the front line whether they want to or not,"
said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center
on Homelessness and Poverty, an advocacy group.
The upturn in homeless outreach is part of an overall 47 percent
increase in library programs from 2004 to 2011, according to a June
report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Libraries' openness is not without critics. Donald Root, head of the
main Philadelphia library, said he has received occasional
complaints from patrons about homeless people who are smelly, loud,
asleep or who appear mentally ill. Other library officials reported
In online comments in a Yelp review, San Francisco's main library
drew complaints from patrons about homeless people who were
sleeping, bathing in restrooms, made sexual comments or were
monopolizing computer terminals.
"Amazing library ruined by the army of homeless that come to sleep
and shower here," one patron wrote.
Libraries can have their own guidelines, like Washington's six-page
rule book barring alcohol, bare feet, oversize bags and an odor that
can be smelled six feet (two meters) away.
Rules for behavior have been influenced by a 1991 appeals court
decision that said libraries were limited public forums, allowing
them to put limits on patrons' behavior.
[to top of second column]
VARIETY OF PROGRAMS
About 610,000 Americans were homeless in January 2013, almost half
of them in big cities, according to a one-night head count by the
U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.
Hundreds of programs to help the homeless have been set up in
libraries across the United States.
The Queens Library in New York City offers a summer reading club and
is developing an online application to help people find services.
Greensboro, North Carolina, libraries have offered haircuts, meals,
blood pressure screening, and job and business counseling, said
Brigitte Blanton, director of the city's libraries.
Philadelphia's central library, where scores of homeless people line
up before opening every day, features a cafe staffed by homeless
people. The homeless also police bathrooms to ensure that they are
not used for bathing or washing clothes.
Libraries in Philadelphia, San Francisco and Washington have hired
"Someone told me before I started working here, 'Oh, librarians are
just social workers.' And I laughed about it, and it's true," said
Jean Badalamenti, the Washington libraries' social worker.
A Madison, Wisconsin, library, installed a parking lot for shopping
carts and other baggage.
"What some of the libraries are doing is phenomenal," said David
Pirtle, who was once homeless and now gives speeches for the
National Coalition for the Homeless.
He said libraries were more welcoming than a decade ago, when some
sought to limit access for the homeless. The homeless also are more
willing to work with librarians and security officers, Pirtle said.
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Eric Beech)
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