They Are Our Shame

What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School: The Public Library as an Asylum for the Homeless
By Chip Ward

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.” Not at all reassured, the woman gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, but that’s hard to do since the rest of us, she informs me, “don’t know the rules.”

Margi is not so mellow. The “fucking Jews” have been at it again she tells a staff member who asks her for the umpteenth time to settle down and stop talking that way. “Communist!” she hisses and storms off, muttering that she will “sue the boss.” Margi is at least 70 and her behavior shows obvious signs of dementia. The staff’s efforts to find out her background are met with angry diatribes and insults. She clutches a book on German grammar and another on submarines that she reads upside down to “make things right.”

Mick is having a bad day, too. He hasn’t misbehaved but sits and stares, glassy-eyed. This is usually the prelude to a seizure. His seizures are easier to deal with than Bob’s, for instance, because he usually has them while seated and so rarely hits his head and bleeds, nor does he ever soil his pants. Bob tends to pace restlessly all day and is often on the move when, without warning, his seizures strike. The last time he went down, he cut his head. The staff has learned to turn him over quickly after he hits the floor, so that his urine does not stain the carpet.

John is trying hard not to be noticed. He has been in trouble lately for the scabs and raw, wet spots that are spreading across his hands and face. Staff members have wondered aloud if he is contagious and asked him to get himself checked-out, but he refuses treatment. He knows he is still being tracked, thanks to the implants the nurse slipped under his skin the last time he surrendered to the clinic and its prescriptions. There are frequencies we don’t hear — but he does. Thin whistles and a subtle beeping indicate he is being followed, his eye movements tracked and recorded. He claims he falls asleep in his chair by the stairway because “the little ones” poke him in the legs with sharp objects that inject sleep-inducing potions.

Franklin sits quietly by the fireplace and reads a magazine about celebrities. He is fastidiously dressed and might be mistaken for a businessman or a professional. His demeanor is confident and normal. If you watch him closely, though, you will see him slowly slip his hand into the pocket of his sports jacket and furtively pull out a long, shiny carpenter’s nail. With it, he carefully pokes out the eyes of the celebs in any photo. Then the nail is returned to his pocket, a faint smirk crossing his face as he turns the page to pursue his next photo victim.

Scenes from a psych ward? Not at all. Welcome to the Salt Lake City Public Library. Like every urban library in the nation, the City Library, as it is called, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city’s “homeless.”

Where the Outcasts Are Inside

In bad weather — hot, cold, or wet — most of the homeless have nowhere to go but public places. The local shelters push them out onto the streets at six in the morning and, even when the weather is good, they are already lining up by nine, when the library opens, because they want to sit down and recover from the chilly dawn or use the restrooms. Fast-food restaurants, hotel lobbies, office foyers, shopping malls, and other privately owned businesses and properties do not tolerate their presence for long. Public libraries, on the other hand, are open and accessible, tolerant, even inviting and entertaining places for them to seek refuge from a world that will not abide their often disheveled and odorous presentation, their odd and sometimes obnoxious behaviors, and the awkward challenges they present to those who encounter them.

Although the public may not have caught on, ask any urban library administrator in the nation where the chronically homeless go during the day and he or she will tell you about the struggles of America’s public librarians to cope with their unwanted and unappreciated role as the daytime guardians of the down and out. In our public libraries, the outcasts are inside.

[snip]

Ophelia is not so far off after all — in a sense she is dead and has been for some time. Hers is a kind of social death from shunning. She is neglected, avoided, ignored, denied, overlooked, feared, detested, pitied, and dismissed. She exists alone in a kind of social purgatory. She waits in the library, day after day, gazing at us through multiple lenses and mumbling to her invisible friends. She does not expect to be rescued or redeemed. She is, as she says, “used to it.”

She is our shame. What do you think about a culture that abandons suffering people and expects them to fend for themselves on the street, then criminalizes them for expressing the symptoms of illnesses they cannot control? We pay lip service to this tragedy — then look away fast. As a library administrator, I hear the public express annoyance more often than not: “What are they doing in here?” “Can’t you control them?” Annoyance is the cousin of arrogance, not shame.

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?

Read all of this remarkable assessment from a recently retired professional librarian here.

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