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Edward Robinson-El came to the West End Library to be its new manager about a month ago. He had managed various libraries around Brooklyn, where he had customers of many ethnicities—-Orthodox Jews, Italians, you name it—and income levels. Still, Robinson-El was surprised when he got to the West End Library and found out who his customers are.
Based on what he’d read about his new assignment, he was expecting mostly patrons from George Washington University. But he doesn’t get many college students at all.
Instead, he says, he gets a mix of kids and also young adults after school, parents with babies, and older adults all times of day. And homeless people. A lot of homeless people. Which is fine with him, but not so fine with some other people—we’ll call them the older, richer, whiter members of the neighborhood.
The library is down on 24th and L Streets NW, in that speck of expensive land called Square 37. The land was almost sold off to developers by emergency legislation last July but then in the end wasn’t, although it might be again. On July 18 the West End Library Friends issued a report detailing recommendations they wanted to see in any new redevelopment plans concerning this prime West End parcel.
It’s hard to be shocked by the results of a library report, but the document issued by the West End Library Friends clearly could use some sensitivity training:
There is a strong sense in the community, reflected in survey answers and appended written comments, that the homeless population’s use of the library is a deterrent to greater use by other patrons.…Those who do use the library are older, wealthier, better educated, and less racially diverse than the general population of the District; and, therefore, the collection, programs, and services for this particular branch, like all branches, should be tailored to the population it serves.
These older, richer, and whiter people need more literary fiction recommended by the New York Times, and so the report suggested that the library procure more. Also, these older, richer, and whiter people need fewer self-help books, a genre that the library now stocks up on. The report also rather explicitly states that the library should find ways to rejigger the balance of homeless to non-homeless users of the library:
The West End Library should be open and welcoming to every person who wants to use it. However, the consistent use of the branch as a day center by the downtown homeless population, not unique to the West End, is a major deterrent to other patrons wishing to use the branch. Therefore, the Committee has made and implemented several recommendations that will mitigate the use of the branch by those without a home base. These recommendations rearrange the reading room, brighten the interior and exterior of the building, and suggest programming to attract more of the non-homeless patron.
Here’s what the library’s Friends find so offensive about the homeless library users, borrowing from the report: the “lack of adequate hygiene,” that library patrons feel unsafe among the homeless, and that “the reading rooms and tables are often occupied exclusively by homeless people and their possessions…”
Accordingly, the report seeks an end to “additional homeless programs offered in the library that are unrelated to core library functions.”
Robin Diener, director of the DC Library Renaissance Project, says that the West End Library followed the report by doing what libraries around the country are doing when faced with this same issue: It put blinds on street-facing windows so that homeless people couldn’t sit inside while watching their belongings; it broke up big groups of tables and chairs into smaller conglomerations so that homeless people couldn’t congregate en masse as easily; and it allowed users only a little bit of time on the computers at a time.
These changes all came before Robinson-El arrived, and he says he isn’t aware of any of them. Nor has he read the anti-homeless report. By his account, he’s had a great relationship with the library’s Friends so far—but on a recent Monday, the blinds are up, there is ample group seating, and the average computer time is more than two hours.
There are posters on all the bulletin boards announcing programs—Indian film, Jewish literature. There are booked-up meeting rooms on the library’s top floors—yoga, tango, the Harvard Club, Census Bureau employment testing, an eating disorder group (which met, ironically, on Yom Kippur).
The stacks are full—-too full, says Robinson-El; he has to figure out how to get rid of some of the books to make room for new materials—-the present selection includes everything from books about the history of Air Force One, several copies of Goethe, a wall display devoted to Studs Terkel, some loose copies of the New York Review of Books, as well as a DVD of Snakes on a Plane on display. There are a fair number of readers around as well, including 15 or so people sitting at tables along the bank of huge windows. One man—-African American, as most of the people at the tables along this wall are—-has glorious blond hair and is reading a study guide to AP Physics. Another man, older and white, is reading an X-Men comic book. A third man wearing ragged but dapper tweed sits reading the Wall Street Journal.
A lot of the patrons have large satchels of belongings with them. If you had to guess, you’d probably guess a lot of them are homeless. But you don’t have to guess. You can ask. And they are homeless, mostly.
“Yes we do have a homeless population here,” says Robinson-El. “But the way public libraries operate is that we open our doors and whoever chooses to come and use that particular agency or facility is welcome.…We have a population that is faithful and loyal. And if you walk around you will see that people are not just lounging around,” he says, though as he says it at least one person at the tables by the window is sleeping, albeit quietly. “They’re reading. I know because I put back the books that they’re reading at the end of the day. They’re reading reference material, they’re reading the newspapers, they’re reading the periodicals. And that’s what we want. They’re using the library, and that’s a good thing.”
The West End Friends don’t think so. Lois Adelson, Chair of the Friends’ Outreach Committee, says that the library report was explicit because it was mirroring the findings of the questionnaire that led to the report, in which locals inventoried the things they liked and didn’t like about the West End Library. Adelson suggests that the anxiety toward the homeless is rooted in compassion. West Enders feel “very sad when they see people whose lives seem to be so empty,” says the 76-year-old Adelson. “Many lay people feel that way in their presence. People have feelings, and anxiety, and I think older people feel threatened by things that are new, being ancient myself.”
“We were honestly trying to ascertain what would get in the way of people going to the library,” says Adelson. “It’s too bad when people don’t use the facility out of fear. We don’t have good institutions for damaged people to spend their days. But the library becoming a social services agency is a stretch.”
Robinson-El says that the issue of homelessness and libraries is an issue that librarians talk about among themselves. Last year, in fact, the system held a staff workshop on homelessness “so our staff would be more sensitive,” says Pamela Stovall, associate director for the Martin Luther King Memorial Library, which has an especially large homeless population. Stovall says that the D.C. libraries’ official position is that “this is a free public library and all are welcome. All of us would love to see more day shelters and improved services for the homeless.”
The welcome mat comes with a judicial mandate. In 2001, the libraries lost a lawsuit brought by a homeless man, Richard Armstrong, who had been excluded from the MLK library based on his “objectionable appearance.” Armstrong’s exile was part of a systemwide policy in place since 1979 to keep the homeless out. A federal court, however, found that the “objectionable appearance” kicking-outs violated Armstrong’s First and Fifth Amendment rights.
The library-access rights of the homeless take on a certain urgency in the summertime, when people who haven’t showered are coming into a small space and other people notice. “If you elect to work in a public library, you can’t be squeamish and you can’t say, ‘Oh, I wish it smelled like roses every day,’” says Robinson-El.
True to the ideal of a library for everyone, Robinson-El has increased the number of seats and lets people move chairs and tables around in order to make themselves feel more comfortable. He’d like more people to use the library—to have more activities, more customers, to have the library be a bigger part of the community—and thinks that perhaps one major change would help with that: “Modestly, we’d like a color printer. So that we could print bright, colorful things.”
Anthony Lanier’s plans for the library are slightly different. Lanier is founder and President of EastBanc, the group that was awarded Square 37 for development by the emergency legislation that was then rescinded. Lanier is hoping that the city issues a new RFP, and that he will win the RFP, which will include tearing down the West End Library and building a new library. Lanier sees this as an opportunity for change.
“The libraries are not a homeless shelter,” he says. “We have to build a library that makes it unlikely that the homeless will basically camp there. Maybe by effectively eliminating the library for two years we will break that habit. I don’t want homeless to use the library as a shelter. Don’t want to disenfranchise them, either.”
A gleaming new library designed to the Friends’ specs might be hard on Claudine Tate—one of the few women at the tables by the windows. Tate says she is 42, and homeless, and that she has had a nomadic life since 1997. She’s new to the West End Library—Tenleytown’s library was where she used to go, but she got tired of it there and decided to try someplace new.
“I come here because it’s a place to get out of the elements, rest,” she says. “There’s a computer so you can advance your skills. It’s also a good setting because the homeless people who home here are into books, reading. I’d rather come here than loitering in the streets every day, sitting on the benches.”
If this library closed—or if it became inhospitable to its homeless customers—Tate says she and the others would probably “migrate to another library. Probably go downtown, MLK library, which is already overcrowded with homeless people.”
Tate has a cache of overstuffed bags on the ground next to her, and a stack of books in front of her—the Epoch Times newspaper, books on art, a dictionary that she has just used to look up a word in a poem in the Epoch Times. She would like to go to college and is looking for a job, and in front of her is a piece of paper where in pencil she’s written: “My Interests: liberal arts, museum studies, antiquities.”
(Photo of Robinson-El by Washington City Paper Staff Photographer Darrow Montgomery)