Public libraries serve the homeless more than just books

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by Erika Aguilar, courtesy of KPCC

The homeless use public libraries like many patrons do — to access information, use the Internet and learn, but they come with everyday needs that the average library user does not have.

Homeless people visit the libraries to escape harsh weather, get fresh drinking water, and use the bathroom and electricity, which push libraries to provide services that are not part of their intended mission.

“It’s not our primary responsibility,” said Heather Folmar, library operations manager for the Santa Ana Public Library. “It’s not our mandate. It’s not what we’re paid to do and we do it because people need it.”

The Santa Ana Public Library is closing Friday to rearrange furniture, to keep a closer eye on the homeless, upgrade its electrical system and replace flooring. Much of the light renovation work comes as Orange County’s homeless population in the Civic Center has grown and many depend on the library for every day needs.

“And that’s okay, if there are services we can provide,” said Folmar. “But we can’t provide showers. We can’t provide a place for them to store their belongings. We can’t provide them with a lot of things that they need.”  The city's risk management department is paying for half of the $25,000 renovation project, said Folmar, which includes more tables and desks.

In Los Angeles, city librarians that specialize in young adult literary noticed homeless teens were using the library computers to check email and outlets to charge their cell phones.

After fielding questions about shelters and places to find food, L.A. city public library spokesman Peter Persic said the librarians produced a directory of homeless services specifically for young people.  “We’re using it at all 73 library locations, but we’ve also gotten requests from other library systems to provide it to them,” he said.

The Los Angeles Central Library also hosts a monthly homeless services meeting called “The Source,” where area service providers offer the library’s homeless patrons a chance to sign up for IDs, cell phones, housing and other supports.

Persic said Los Angeles city libraries haven’t had to change building setups to accommodate its homeless users.  However, in Santa Ana, the public library is the only branch in the city, and it isn’t currently modern enough to accommodate needs such as extra power outlets.

“People go wherever they can charge their phone,” said Marni Alcaraz, a homeless woman who has been living at Orange County’s Civic Center for about two years.

Folmar said homeless people will try to sit in the middle of walkways to keep watch over their cell phones, but that’s a safety hazard. Cell phones are lifelines for the homeless and that’s why sometimes arguments break out in the library over whose turn it is to use the limited outlets, she said.

“All kinds of misbehavior,” Folmar said. “Most of it is victimless, but it’s still not acceptable in here.”

Recently, the library posted signs on the building doors warning people not to pick up needles and syringes found around the premises. It has hired four security guards to watch the premises inside and out.

Concerns about safety and the homeless living at Civic Center have intensified over the last month. Orange County Superior Court staff have asked for tips on how to keep safe while walking through the area. Last week, a Santa Ana police officer shot and wounded a homeless man. 

Alcaraz said she tries not to use the library, county or city building bathrooms because law enforcement officers and security guards will bang on doors to get homeless people out.  She said it makes her uncomfortable, but there aren’t a lot of places for the homeless to go.

“There’s just too much going on here – too many homeless people,” she said. “I don’t know what they are going to do [with] everybody.”

Not far from her, a construction sign posted to a tree advises homeless people camping that on Aug. 17, Orange County Public Works crews will fence off a portion of the Civic Center for underground pipeline construction. Homeless people and their advocates worry about where people will be pushed to when construction begins.