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Can remodeled library attract public, suit homeless?

Can remodeled library attract public, suit homeless?

You see them as you approach, 10 or so people congregating outside Madison’s Central Library on a sun-lit autumn afternoon. They sit on the ledges and steps of the scarred entry patio, or stand on the sidewalk along West Mifflin Street. Some of them keep the possessions they carry everywhere — suitcases and backpacks, duffel bags and bedrolls — piled nearby. They come and go — into the library or off down the street — but the crowd coalesces late in the afternoon as those who are homeless prepare to get in line for a nearby shelter.

Ask why they hang out at the library and they’ll talk about comfort. It’s warm. It’s dry. There are public restrooms. But the library offers much more. “They’ve got books and magazines and music. I love the library,” enthuses one young woman. Yet beyond its comforts and diversions, it’s apparent the library, a short block off State Street, also is a prime meeting place in certain circles. “If you’re looking for somebody, this is the place to find them,” says a formerly homeless man who gives his name only as Jeff.

The typical warm-weather scene on the patio unfolds as the city of Madison is embarking on a $29.5 million redevelopment of the Central Library into a larger, more attractive facility better designed to meet 21st century needs. The plan to rebuild the 45-year-old Bernard Schwab Library at 201 W. Mifflin St. was scaled back from a plan to construct a new library as part of a full-block public-private development after that deal broke down earlier this year. A library design due to be unveiled on Dec. 7 eventually will go for approval to the City Council, which has already endorsed the project’s concept. If things go smoothly, construction would begin in mid-2011 and be finished the following year. Beyond the anticipated $17 million in city borrowing and $4.5 million in federal tax credits, the library project will require some $8 million in private funds.

The newly designed Central Library, then, has to be a project that resonates with a broad spectrum of the Madison community, which will support it with taxes, donations and patronage. But the crowd on the library patio turns off some, library officials admit. “I hear anecdotally of people saying they prefer to go to branches because they feel safer,” says Theodore “Tripp” Widder, president of the Madison Library Board.

That’s why, as the library design team has been holding public sessions to sound out demand for more space, more light, more seating and more public-access computers, a less widely known planning effort also is under way to gauge how to build a library that best integrates homeless users.

Some changes already have been identified: the all-too-inviting patio will be removed and meeting rooms likely will be repositioned to allow better outreach services to the homeless, say library officials and designers.

But while building to integrate the homeless who frequent the library is a priority, Widder says, they are just one user group. “We have to balance the need to accommodate the homeless with the need to accommodate other user groups. Everyone has to feel comfortable and safe here.”

•    •    •    •

In a sense, American public libraries have dealt with issues of class since their inception. Libraries as we know them today evolved from the private library clubs of Colonial times that were intended to connect the elite on both sides of the Atlantic through a shared canon and shape American culture. By the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century, emerging urban public libraries — and their spacious reading rooms filled with immigrants and working men — had become institutions to rescue the poor from their unilluminated lives, as Thomas Augst recounts in “Institutions of Reading: The Social Life of Libraries in the United States.”

Often housed in palatial, even ecclesiastical-looking buildings, libraries became symbols of civic dignity and vehicles of social reform. The philosophy followed that free libraries were “public works,” spending on which would reduce poverty and the cost of law enforcement. With their rules and standards of behavior — reading room policies restricted food and drink while their attendants enforced order and silence — libraries embodied moral values.

The 135-year history of the Madison Public Library traces an arc similar to the national experience. A subscription library founded in the 1850s was headed by University of Wisconsin President John H. Lathrop, according to “Free and Public: One Hundred Years with the Madison Public Library,” by Janet S. Ela. Known as the Madison Institute, it offered not only access to its collecton with a $2 annual fee, but also sponsored popular lectures and debates.

Following the trend of developing free public libraries, the Madison City Council in 1874 allocated $1,500 for a Madison Free Library to be opened in City Hall the following year. The library opened its own building at Carroll and Dayton streets in 1906, funded with $75,000 Madison received as one of more than 1,600 U.S. library  endowments by industrialist Andrew Carnegie. The Madison Free Library weathered world wars and economic depression, opening four branches before it abandoned its outgrown original site. The 1965 library building now targeted for renovation was named for long-time director Schwab, who, with his neighbor, the city architect, fiddled with the building design at his kitchen table, according to a Madison Public Library history.

•    •    •    •

Intended since their earliest years as havens for the poor, public libraries saw increasing numbers of mentally ill people — many of them homeless — coming through their doors with the closing of state psychiatric hospitals beginning in the 1960s. The presence of homeless people has been a topic of concern for decades, says Audra Caplan, president of the Public Library Association, a division of the American Library Association. Libraries were struggling to cope with sometimes alarming behavior.

Then a 1992 federal court decision in a New Jersey case upheld librarians’ right to restrict disruptive behavior. The case set the standard for rules of conduct tailored to further the mission of libraries. Caplan says most public libraries today rely on such policies, which seek to control disruptive behavior, not to slam the door on anyone. “Librarians want to serve their communities, and I think we have a commitment to everyone, whether they are homeless or millionaires.”

While behaviors like drunkenness or public urination are clear rule violations, says Caplan, the economic downturn is putting more pressure on libraries to serve more people in more desperate need of help, ratcheting up the tension. “Libraries are seeing people coming for more serious reference transactions — like finding jobs or filing for unemployment. We’re also dealing with the fact that other agencies have had major reductions in budgets; they can’t always serve the people they were serving before. People are coming in to the library because there isn’t anywhere else for them to go.”

“This is not a library issue,” she says, “it’s a community issue.”

Ask Jeff, the library patio regular, how passersby react to the group and he admits that sometimes people walking by seem intimidated and sidestep the group as it spills onto the sidewalk. But rude comments to passersby are rare, insists Jeff. Arguments or sleeping on the patio also are unusual because the library staff doesn’t tolerate either, several members of the group agree.

But that’s not the picture painted by one downtown worker who wrote this summer to tell library officials how uncomfortable the crowd on the patio makes her feel as she walks by. “I am constantly subject to inappropriate sexual comments, stares and catcalls,” she writes. Other people tell her, she says, that they won’t use a nearby bus stop because of panhandling and harassment.

The crowd outside probably does make some people avoid the library, says Adam Plotkin, president of Capitol Neighborhoods Inc., the downtown neighborhood association. “Sometimes it’s hard to get in the library without passing through a situation that might make some people uncomfortable,” he says.

Longtime Ald. Mike Verveer, who represents downtown, says complaints about people congregating outside the library — common for years — have increased lately as the crowd has grown larger. “It’s the No. 1 concern that has come up in some forums with downtown stakeholders. With the design the way it is, some library patrons report that they feel they have to walk the gauntlet of individuals who sometimes make threatening comments and gestures.”

Madison police officer Chanda Dolsen speculates that the poor economy that has put people out of work and out of their homes, coupled with Madison’s reputation for quality social services, may be why more people were hanging out at the library during warm weather this year.

Its location just outside the zone that anyone banned from State Street for causing disturbances may not enter makes it attractive for those people, Dolsen says. But she also says it is the design of the library’s entrance that makes it such an inviting place to hang out. “If you look at the exterior, the patio space really is conducive to sitting and enjoying the weather. That turns into sitting for extended periods, and that turns it into an area where you end up having fights, panhandling and other ordinance violations. But it’s only a few who indulge in that behavior.”

Library officials like Director Barbara Dimick are quick to say that it’s not homelessness, but behavior, that is the issue. “It’s the criminals, it’s the people who are mentally ill, it’s the drunks who are perceived as a problem.”

And numbers suggest that dealing with challenging patrons is a growing problem for library staff. Calls to the police for help are up, rising steadily each year: 81 in 2007 to 126 in 2008 to 137 in 2009 and 120 through September of this year.

The Central Library has been employing security staff since 1998, and costs are up sharply in recent years: $14,310 in 2007 to $28,763 in 2009, when security staff’s hours and duties were increased. Costs are projected to total $42,777 this year. The library also installed surveillance cameras in November 2009 to better identify troublemakers and make banned miscreants known in all library branches.

•    •    •    •

A thick file of internal reports for this year gives a glimpse of the kinds of problems staff members face. Incidents include fighting over computer time, stealing library materials, slamming down books, singing in the restroom, being a man in the women’s restroom, and having sex in a restroom stall. People also were written up for trying to sell drugs, overdosing on drugs in the men’s room, and being passed out at a table, in the men’s room, and out in front of the library (one man with his pants down). Another man staggered around the patio before going up to the reference desk to ask for help getting to the detox center. The reports describe library staff confronting angry, argumentative patrons, working in pairs to signal when to call in police.

Most of the incidents resulted in the disruptive patrons being banned from the library, sometimes for up to a year. One man was banned from all Madison public libraries for a year after a series of incidents ranging from bathing in restrooms to kissing a computer screen filled with images of scantily clad people to dripping “goo” from his hair and beard onto library materials. After shouting at Central Library staff last month, he was arrested and removed by police.

But visit the library, and odds are things won’t be so dramatic. It is the first rainy day after weeks of unseasonably warm, sunny weather. Right after the doors open at Madison Central Library, homeless people start arriving. They wheel in suitcases and lug backpacks and duffel bags selected to conform to rules limiting the number of bags (two) and their size (26 by 14 by 14 inches). By mid-morning, people surrounded by gear occupy nine of the dozen tables in the first-floor reading room that looks out on the patio. “I wonder how many people will show up today,” one man asks his table companion. A man in a New York Jets jacket asks around for the sports section from the prior day’s newspaper.

Two middle-aged women sit across from each other, leafing through magazines as they talk quietly. One, who goes by the name “C.C.,” pulls some chocolates from a well-worn plastic shopping bag and offers some to her companion, Pam Neal. Neal, who sports a Wisconsin sweatshirt fraying at the neckline, says she comes to the library nearly every day. “It’s warm and it’s dry,” she says. A former hotel maid who spent the night sleeping in a downtown doorway, Neal, 55, says she used up her allotted time at a local women’s shelter since returning to Wisconsin in April after three years in Colorado. She’s been looking for work without success, she says. “I need to get a job and get my life back together.”

A husky guy wearing a Bucky Badgers T-shirt under his jacket leans his suitcase up against a table to reserve it while he goes to nearby shelves to select a USA Today. He comes to the library pretty much every day to “read up on the news and use the computer,” says the man who will give his name only as “Ted.” He says he is a military veteran who has been homeless for about six weeks after losing a home in Beaver Dam in what he describes as a “long story.” Ted, 60, says he is on a waiting list for housing and spent the night in the men’s shelter at Grace Episcopal Church nearby. He is taking classes “to get my life in order.”

By 11 a.m., nearly all of the public-access computers are in use. Access to computers is important to homeless patrons, who use the Internet to look for work and to keep in touch with family and friends, say library officials. No one is sitting at the table with a strip of electrical outlets reserved for laptop users.

Over by the CDs, a man walks around brushing his teeth vigorously, then crosses the room to a public drinking fountain and rinses out his mouth. He tosses the toothbrush into a wastebasket.

The crash of a tall, balding older man who knocks newspapers from the shelves as he falls to the floor gets everyone’s attention and quickly brings a staff member to the area. “Are you all right?” he asks. The man mumbles an explanation, struggles to his feet, and seats himself at the nearest table. His appearance as he buries his head, ringed by tufts of unruly white hair, in a magazine is reminiscent of a library school exercise where students split over identifying a photo of a similar looking man as “homeless person” and “professor emeritus.”

•    •    •    •

Jeffrey Scherer of the firm Meyer, Scherer & Rockcastle of Minneapolis, the architects hired by the city, says he is still working out the best ways in which the revamped Central Library can be made to better serve all patrons, including the homeless. One thing is certain, though: The patio has got to go.

“There won’t be any place to sit and there won’t be any place to congregate,” says Scherer. But concerns over the patio being used as a gathering spot aren’t the most important reason it has been erased from architectural drawings. “We need the space,” says Scherer. As the patio space is incorporated into the interior of the building, it will allow for a more “intuitive” way of entering the building and spotting a staff member for assistance, he says. The entry will become more navigable for physically challenged patrons, and space will open up for a lobby area suitable for use in conjunction with after-hours meetings and events.

The current arrangement of seating on the main floor — with a roomful of tables and chairs right inside the entry that often are occupied by homeless people with their gear — compounds any queasiness some visitors might feel over the group congregating outside. In the renovated library, seating for adults likely will be scattered throughout what will be three floors. “It will be a natural way in which people can be separated without it being uncomfortable,” says Scherer, who estimates that he has designed 150 libraries over a 30-year career. Every project in a city with a population of more than 10,000 or so addresses concerns about homeless patrons, he says.

Another possible strategy to control behavior is bathrooms with labyrinth entries instead of doors, which are easier to monitor and make use of the restrooms for bathing less likely, Scherer says.

Madison library staff and planners are also considering designating a resources room near the entrance on the first floor to be used by social service agencies to work with homeless people.

That’s good news for service providers, says Mike Fleenor of ReachOut, a program administered through the Tellurian UCAN addiction treatment agency. Outreach workers have been meeting with clients at the library in an out-of-the-way conference room for about two years, Fleenor says. The setting provides an opportunity to meet in a quiet place indoors and to reach clients who might avoid contact on the street.

“The library saw an opening and they took it; it’s been working very well for us,” says Fleenor, who estimates that three to five clients may walk in during the weekly two-hour mid-day sessions.

While Madison eyes a more permanent space for outreach services to the homeless, other libraries have gone further. The Seattle Public Library made a splash in 2009 when it became the first to hire a full-time outreach worker. It seems to have paid off, says spokesperson Michelle Jeffers. “A lot of people were coming in because they had no other place to go and librarians felt that they couldn’t offer them anything. Staff wanted to be able to give them something more.” The city spends about $320,000 a year on homeless services and security at the library, she says. Library staff members tell her that there are fewer disruptive behaviors in the library because people know there is someone they can approach for help.

In Pennsylvania, the Free Library of Philadelphia has worked with a local homelessness services agency to develop programs to employ formerly homeless people at the central library. After bathing by homeless people in the restrooms brought complaints from other patrons, Project H.O.M.E. helped train a team of formerly homeless people as restroom attendants and outreach workers. The nonprofit agency also developed a privately funded project to start a café at the library that provides on-the-job training and refreshments for library patrons.

Both projects are big successes, says Lisa Kavanaugh of Project H.O.M.E. The attendant program especially is credited with helping to eliminate vandalism of the restrooms. “People seem more willing to comply with the rules of the building — no bathing and no sleeping,” she says.

•    •    •    •

As public libraries around the country experiment with ways to serve the homeless while fulfilling their mission, the issue today in library administration is not whether libraries should accommodate the homeless, it’s whether the rules designed to cope with disruptive patrons are being interpreted fairly for the homeless, says Jane Pearlmutter, associate director of the University of Wisconsin School of Library and Information Studies.

“Does the library ask everybody who brings in more than two bags to leave? Probably not,” she says. “We are a public space. We don’t ask people to give us their reasons for being there before they come in — and the homeless are not the only people who use the library just to hang out.”

That function of libraries as a “third place” in the community beyond home and work is important, Pearlmutter says. “They are a community space in a time when we don’t have a lot of them, and there has been a lot more talk about this in recent years. The role of library as place and the function it serves in the community are becoming even more important in the digital age.”

We may be asking libraries to serve bigger and more varied roles, but in at least one city, service to the homeless became a divisive political issue. Disgust and frustration in Seattle about misuse of the public library and its bathrooms to sleep and bathe hampered fundraising a decade ago for the $165 million library that opened in 2004, according to published accounts. People feared the new library would become simply a more expensive homeless hangout. But with beefed up security, more space and diverse programming, the library today is accommodating rich and poor.

An anti-homeless faction in connection with the library reconstruction has not emerged in Madison. Verveer says it’s only from the most fringe sources — anonymous reader comments online and on talk radio — that he’s heard the sentiment that investing tax dollars in a library that is too well-used by the homeless is a waste of money. “I’d like to think that most downtown residents don’t feel that way.”

Susan Schmitz, president of Downtown Madison Inc., says members of her business lobbying group are excited about the new library. And while she hears grousing about the presence of the homeless, “one thing we have learned in designing public gathering places is to design public spaces for all people. The more people that use it, the more any kind of negative behavior is minimized.”

Any alarm, even antipathy, over the people hanging out at the library is not a reason to curtail plans to invest in it, says Widder. “It is our central library. This is a statement about who Madison is. We want to make it a destination with more active programming to bring people in — that’s really where libraries are headed.”

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