A new group is joining the push for more affordable housing: city libraries. Yes, it’s true. Public libraries, in the District and around the country, have long been considered “day shelters” where the homeless hang out until the shelter’s open at night, said Robin Diener, president of the Friends of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library, near Gallery Place in downtown D.C.
As the city experienced an unprecedented spike in homelessness this winter, libraries have been seeing more homeless residents use their facilities. The group is proud that homeless residents would take advantage of the library system, a place Diener called a “sanctuary for the mind.” But is also comes with challenges, particularly when homeless residents use the bathrooms to shave, groom or, in some case, do drugs. So the city’s homeless crisis, due primarily because of the city’s loss of low-income housing, has become an issue for the city’s library system.
“We know for sure we can do more to help,” Diener said.
Diener’s group convened librarians and homeless advocates Wednesday morning to discuss the best ways for libraries to address homelessness.
Martha Maria Foscarinis, director of the National Law Center for Homelessness and Poverty, called for a a mix of empathy and advocacy. “It’s really important for libraries to preserve one of the few remaining public sanctuaries [for the homeless] and instead to develop programs to help them,” Foscarinis said. She suggested that library volunteers “demand that housing be affordable.”
Given that the city still has a long way to go on the affordable housing front, the group began dreaming up ways to use the library system as avenues to help some of the city’s most vulnerable people. William Turner, a librarian at the city’s West End branch, suggested a reading group. Brian Carome, executive director of the homeless newspaper, StreetSense, suggested a writing group (Alas, no groups were selected for ‘rithmetic.)
Diener also pointed out innovations across the country that the District might consider, given its plan to overhaul the MLK library. In Philadelphia, the central public library set aside space for a coffee and lounge area — then hired homeless people to work there. In San Diego, the library hosted a job skills training. In Seattle, they created a new cafe near to the library, with extra air ducts on the floor to circulate air and keep the place smelling fresh. Diener suggested they might have come up with the most creative solution of all: painting the bathrooms a color so unappealing that it would “discourage lingering.” (The color was a neon-looking green.)
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, the new executive director of D.C.’s public library system, added the city has already come up with some solutions. First, they’ve hired a social worker to train staff on how to deal with homeless patrons. The city is also paying special consideration to keeping bathrooms out of basements and hidden crevices that could harbor unsafe or dangerous activity. “We got to do a better job of not being afraid [of engaging homeless patrons],” Reyes-Gavilan said. “There has forever been this stigma with the homeless populations, and it’s unfair.”