Every morning, buses carrying hundreds of people from the District’s homeless shelters begin arriving at the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library hours before it opens. They file off the shuttles, with duffel bags, backpacks and rolling suitcases. Some head up the street to get breakfast and coffee. Others put their bags down near the library’s entrance and wait.
When the doors are unlocked at 9:30 a.m., the line of people moves swiftly into the lobby of the renowned central library. Some people head for the computers. Others head for the special-
collections section. Some stake out their favorite chairs in the vast lobby decorated by a mural of King.
For the homeless, the modernist landmark has long been a favorite daytime destination. but on Saturday, it will close for a three-year, $208 million renovation, leaving those who have relied on it adrift.
“If you are homeless,” said Michael Coleman, 57, who spends most days at the library, “this is your refuge during the day. You take away my refuge, you take away my life.”
Eric Sheptock, a 47-year-old advocate for the homeless who is homeless himself, said he worries about everyone who relies on the library.
“Where will they go? I’ve been trying to get D.C. to address that,” he said. “It’s going to disrupt life for three years.”
Sheptock says that a rally will be held starting at 4 p.m. Saturday in front of the library to urge better services for the city’s homeless and those who live in poverty.
Richard Reyes-Gavilan, executive director of the D.C. Public Library, said the library has been working closely with D.C. Department of Human Services to offer the homeless alternatives.
Laura Zeilinger, director of the D.C. Department of Human Services, said the agency will be expanding plans to expand daytime services to the homeless. She said that the homeless consider the library a retreat “they can use during the day without being accused of loitering.”
The city would like to create a downtown day center for the homeless, like the one it operates on Adams Place in Northeast Washington, she said. Until then, it will add shuttle stops to its buses to give the homeless other options.
The shuttle will pick up people at the 801 East Men’s Shelter in Southeast and make stops at Minnesota Avenue and Benning Road NE, where people can look for work at the Department of Employment Services, access computers at the Dorothy Height/Benning Library and see the doctors and nurses at the Unity Health Care Clinic. Another stop will be at Adams Place Day Center, where people can meet case managers, use laundry facilities, showers and computers, and eat breakfast and lunch. People also can be dropped downtown at the Church of the Epiphany, which has bathrooms and a courtyard, she said. The church houses the offices of Street Sense newspaper and the Pathways to Housing’s downtown outreach team.
The library system itself is also trying to help the homeless adjust. It is one of the few library systems in the nation to employ a full-time homeless coordinator, Jean Badalamenti, a licensed social worker who assists homeless people and trains staff to recognize and work sensitively with “customers without homes.”
Badalamenti said the library has been encouraging the homeless to use other branches.
“I’ve developed a flier to highlight some of the closer-in downtown branches,” she added.
A Pathways to Housing intern has been having conversations with the library’s homeless regulars, she said, “making sure these customers know about other branches and what is available to them.” But many will still miss the District’s library at Ninth and G streets NW, with its vast spaces, black steel, blond brick, bronze-tinted windows and countless books.
The library was designed by German-born architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, who was celebrated for his austere modern designs. When then-library director Harry Peterson saw the design in 1966, he was impressed. “This is the most functional, the most beautiful, and most dramatic library building in the United States, if not in the world,” he declared.
Construction on the library began in July 1968. Three years later, the library system’s board of trustees named the building in honor of the slain civil rights leader.
The library opened in 1972, and it was designated a historic landmark in 2007. But many found the building’s layout uninviting and illogical. From the lobby, stairs to other floors are hard to find, and the stairwells are dark and depressing. In 2015, the board of trustees voted to renovate the library and transform it into a world-class center for learning.
“The aim is to go beyond a library that is merely transactional — a place where you go simply to check out a book,” the board said. After a competition, Mecanoo and Martinez + Johnson was selected to design the renovation.
The renovation will add about 100,000 square feet of new public space, including a rooftop garden and pavilion. The reconfigured interior will make the basement and other spaces more usable.
During the construction, the library’s books will be stored or sent to branches throughout the city. The branches will open additional hours on Thursday mornings to accommodate MLK’s patrons. And the city will open a “Library Express” at 1990 K St. NW.
MLK’s books and furniture will be packed and stored. The historic “Black Studies” and “Washingtoniana Collection” will be divided and sent to the Washington Historical Society, the Georgetown Library’s Peabody Room and the Library of Congress.
But MLK’s “customers without homes” will miss eating dinner in the library’s lobby. Each Wednesday, Catholic Charities handed out dinners across the street from the library, and many took their food back to the library’s lobby to sit at a table.
It provided civility.
One recent night, Jennifer McLaughlin, 39, was eating a dinner of orange chicken, rice and a peach muffin. She sat at a table with Sheptock, who paused to take a call on his cellphone. McLaughlin opened her cardboard carton and pulled her chair in a bit more.
“People like sitting at a table and chairs rather than eating on the sidewalk. It’s nice to sit at a table and eat your dinner,” McLaughlin said. “People are going to miss that. A lot of people know each other, like, ‘How you been doing? What’s up? Haven’t seen you in weeks. Months. When we finish eating, we can go back in line for extra helpings.’ Then people line up to go back to the shelter.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story described Ludwig Mies van der Rohe as German. He was born in Germany, but was a U.S. citizen when he designed the library.