Russell had a long beard that at least one librarian likened to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. Every day he showed up to the Central Library building in downtown St. Louis, and because he always wore the same clothes, bearing the logo of the city’s former NFL team, the staff privately nicknamed him “Rams Jacket.” It was increasingly becoming a problem that hundreds of people like Russell, who spent their nights at the homeless shelter across the street, would spend their days in the library. But Russell was, according to one librarian who worked at Central at the time, “the most regular of the regulars.”
He always sat in the exact same room, at the same table, in the same chair. He usually read quietly, and when not reading, he napped sitting with the book propped up in front of him. He was in many ways the ideal library patron. However, Russell slept at a shelter where a different person used every bed each night, the linens changed only once a week. He became afflicted with bed bugs. He suffered from painful, suppurating sores.
Homeless people spending time in and around public libraries are nothing unusual in metropolitan areas. It has been written about before, widely. But at this central library in St. Louis, the city system’s crown jewel, a conundrum that exists all over the country was heightened to a rare degree. A library is supposed to be a place for all people. But how does the library keep its doors open to all?
The New Life Evangelistic Center, where Russell slept, was a controversial homeless shelter. Run by a reverend and sometimes-third party mayoral candidate named Larry Rice, the shelter took in as many as 300 people every night, and every morning at six, these people were told to leave for the day.
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Across the street, however, the Central Library where Russell spent his days had undergone a $70 million renovation. Its floors perfectly reflect the sunlight shining in through massive stained glass windows. Frescoes adorn the high ceilings. Footsteps and low voices echo in exactly the right hallowed way. The building itself is more than a century old, designed by the architect of the Woolworth building in Manhattan with construction funded by Andrew Carnegie. Canonical names are etched around the rim of its granite exterior: Goethe, Milton, Racine.
Between the Central Library and the NLEC sits tiny Lucas Gardens Park, where many people who slept the previous night in the shelter waited out the days. If you’d visited the area as recently as this spring you would have noticed the crowd congregated there, people who seemed to have everything they own clutched in their hand or stored in bags at their feet. At times there were so many people in the park that it looked as if an event were about to begin.
Unable to use the NLEC’s facilities during the day, many of its residents used the library’s bathrooms, water fountains, and air conditioning, which meant that, according to one former librarian, the Central Library was a “de facto day shelter with hundreds of people.”
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[I]t was common in the library’s Great Hall for every chair to be occupied by someone experiencing homelessness. This deterred research, fewer people checked out books, and parents were hesitant to bring their children. The library’s executive director testified that Central Library was more and more, “used not as a public library but as a shelter, a place to keep warm, a place to keep cool, a place to sit, a place to meet.” Due to the volume of people outside, some library staff were escorted to and from their cars at the beginning and end of their shifts. Representatives from the library stated that Central employed a full-time custodian whose entire job was to, “constantly walk the perimeter of the building, cleaning up large amounts of blankets, clothing, food containers and trash, as well as urine, feces, vomit, and drug paraphernalia.” This custodian removed human feces “virtually every day.”
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“If you smell or you look like you haven’t changed your clothes and you truly are homeless on the street, they will not let you in,” Megan Ferguson says. “The police will put you out. There’s actual police in there that will put you out.”
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“There was a big $70 million investment in the renovation,” he said. “And certainly some of the library’s leadership felt that NLEC folks were discouraging other patrons from visiting, bringing their kids downtown. This is a real concern. Central Library is a stunning building, a shared asset that everyone should be able to enjoy safely. It’s an extremely difficult and complex problem, balancing the safety of the library on the one hand with the acknowledgment on the other that the homeless and marginalized are real patrons, too.”
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Faye Abram, a social work professor recently retired from St. Louis University, says that it helps to bear in mind that even though homeless people don’t have a home, they still have a home base. In this particular case, she says, the Central Library didn’t attract the homeless so much as it was located within the community of the homeless. The NLEC was next door, and about five blocks north is a Catholic Charity-run center offering support for people experiencing homelessness. Resources for utility assistance and pro bono legal services are also within a few blocks. “The library was part of their community,” Abram said. “And the library because of its generally open policies and liberal hours was like a safe space.”
Abram, who was asked to testify at the hearings related to the NLEC, says she never perceived the Central Library as an institution asking itself what it should do to be more responsive to the needs of homeless people in the area. But, she said, she isn’t sure that is a fair burden to put on the library. It’s asking the library to do more than what libraries are typically asked to do.
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Cooke pointed to libraries in San Francisco that have coordinated with a mobile shower facility that parks outside various branch locations, which provide the necessary water hook up. Abram mentioned that some libraries allow people moving into areas to use the local branch address as their home address until they are settled. At a library in Philadelphia, librarians have been trained to administer Narcan in the case that someone in or near the library overdoses on opioids. In a recent article for the Philadelphia Inquirer, a reporter chronicled the story of one librarian who helped save the lives of three overdose victims in as many shifts.
PG says it’s a tough problem with no easy answers.
However, he suspects many parents will not bring their children into the kind of environment described in the OP. When the next library renovation requires funding, political support may very well be absent.
Regarding a central city library building being viewed as a “crown jewel” of a city, those days may be over.