Libraries open new chapter in helping homeless

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by Alex Groves, Courtesy of the Press Enterprise

James Belvedere-Cricket, 74, a Temecula-area homeless man, enjoys his visits to the Grace Mellman Community Library to read the morning paper.  He says he goes at least a couple of times a week and enjoys reading stories about the weather in the cool, air-conditioned facility. He also likes that the library has restrooms he can use.

Belvedere-Cricket is one of many homeless people who spend time in libraries in the Inland Empire and across the nation. The facilities, known as places for literacy and study, also have become refuges for the homeless.

Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association, said a growing base of homeless visitors has required libraries across the country to analyze how to better serve those people.

It’s also required that libraries address some issues that homeless patrons have at times posed. Though many libraries say a majority of their homeless patrons are like Belevedere-Cricket – law-abiding people looking for resources – some homeless may bring in unwanted problems such as vandalism, drug use and urban camping, which libraries have to meet head-on.

Vandalism, Drug Use

Libraries say they do see such things as vandalism and drug use committed by a portion of their homeless visitors.  Tonya Kennon, library director for the Riverside Public Library system, said vandalism ranges from graffiti to people trying to break the locks off toilet roll holders.

Don McCue, director of A.K. Smiley Public Library in Redlands, said the library there also has problems with vandalism in the bathrooms.  A couple of months ago, he said, “They created a happy face out of feces in the stall,” he said.  Both Kennon and McCue also say their libraries have come across illegal narcotic use, which they say is immediately reported to authorities.

Beaumont Library District Director Clara DiFelice said library staff had to call the police when one of the homeless people who regularly stays on the library’s front patio was seen doing drugs.

Sleeping on library property

The Riverside City Library Board of Trustees receives a list every month of safety incidents that have happened at city libraries.  During July, the most recent month for which incidents are available, one person was found sleeping on library property at the Eastside location, one at the La Sierra location and three at the main downtown library.

Those individuals were all given exclusion notices, meaning they are barred from visiting the library for a period of time.

Verbal warnings also are given for camping outside and sleeping inside the library. “If we have repeat offenders, they might have a warning one day, then we’ll move that up on the disciplinary action,” Kennon said, adding that a person could ultimately face exclusion.

Comprehensive solutions

Todaro said libraries across the country are forming partnerships with other agencies such as law enforcement and medical professionals. Others are putting in resources such as lockers for homeless individuals to stow their stuff, she said.

She said libraries should consider providing such resources in order to create a rapport with members of the homeless community and hopefully connect them with greater help.  “Libraries are really approaching this very aggressively,” she said. “And honestly when any business sees a large clientele coming their way, then they need to determine what they can do to help.”

Local libraries say syncing up the homeless with services that can help them is one of their objectives as well.  “We will definitely contact our homeless outreach team, who will go out and see if these folks would be interested in services of the community that might be helpful or of interest to them,” Kennon said.

McCue said the A.K. Smiley Public Library has a “liason officer” from the Redlands Police Department who offers to connect homeless individuals with resources.  Todaro said libraries also have to draw a hard line about behaviors are not acceptable, making that clear in their rules and enforcing those rules.

“We invite people to come in and stay, but when you get a number of people with different needs and different issues in one public space, our patron behavior policy really needs to speak to all of those needs,” Todaro said.

Kennon said the Riverside Library system now makes regular sweeps of the bathrooms to make sure people are not committing vandalism or using drugs.  She said the library system also has made changes to combat camping, like cutting down hedges where people were storing their items and changing the entryway of a branch library in the La Sierra area.

McCue said his staff is trained to recognize signs of drug use at the library and quickly report it. He said the library has had a dedicated officer working with them for the past three years and that person quickly comes to the scene whenever there is trouble, either with the homeless or other people.

Todaro, Kennon and McCue all say homeless individuals are more than welcome at libraries if they follow guidelines and that those libraries are more than happy to be a place for the homeless to stay.

“Libraries are beacons of light for many people young, old and in-between, and we want to make sure we can provide the very best to the community,” Kennon said.  “We’re glad they’re here and we continue to provide them with the very best they need.”