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Opinion D.C.’s libraries remain safe spaces for people experiencing homelessness

The Grand Reading Room at the renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C.
The Grand Reading Room at the renovated Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in D.C. (Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)
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Christy Respress is executive director of Pathways to Housing DC, a nonprofit that seeks to end homelessness and support recovery for people with complex health challenges.

Given the recent surge in coronavirus cases, the recent temporary closing of the Smithsonian museums is understandable, yet disappointing, to those of us who love our city’s free and diverse cultural institutions.

Now, with public spaces once again shutting down and colder temperatures coming soon, I am concerned about how D.C. residents experiencing homelessness are going to survive the next few months.

The pandemic has changed our lives in countless ways. For unhoused people, the combination of frigid weather and limited places to spend time indoors could have devastating consequences. And while city shelters are open with capacity limited to 50 percent to ensure social distancing, some people prefer not to go to a shelter. They may be worried about catching the coronavirus or have another personal reason. Being able to spend time at other indoor locations during the day means limiting their exposure to potentially life-threatening weather, though it is no substitute for having a home.

Museums, libraries, coffee shops, restaurants and other public places provide refuge — far beyond escaping the winter cold or summer heat. People experiencing homelessness use public spaces for the same reasons as people who live inside: because their phone battery is about to die, they need to go to the bathroom, the skies are about to open up or they need a convenient place to meet someone.

One man we helped into housing used to spend his days perusing exhibits at the National Gallery of Art. He found the artworks healing and felt safe there. Another frequented the Metro Center Cosi, where he was known for helping the staff straighten the tables and chairs. Going to the restaurant gave him a sense of being part of a community. I can’t imagine how this gentleman felt when he discovered the place he saw as his very own “Cheers” — where everyone knows your name — had closed. And now this reality: The Restaurant Association Metropolitan Washington recently predicted that a quarter of area restaurants won’t survive the pandemic, with many of those closures coming this winter.

With most museums temporarily closed and restaurants going out of business, I am grateful that D.C.’s libraries remain open. In describing the newly modernized Martin Luther King Jr. Library, D.C. Public Library Executive Director Richard Reyes-Gavilan said: “It’s not just a place to grab a book and leave. It’s a place where you’ll want to stay and work and dream . . . a palace for the people.”

He means all people. I’m recalling a man we got to know at Pathways to Housing DC who couldn’t remember his name or where he was from. He went to the library to look through books in hopes it would jog his memory. Others go there to use the computers and free WiFi to work on their résumés, look for jobs and reconnect with family members. They head to the library to be around other people and fill their days with engaging activities.

For the past 16 years — since Pathways to Housing DC introduced the “Housing First” model to the Washington area — public spaces have been the site of many a conversation between our staff and unhoused individuals about moving into their own apartments. Those conversations have led to stable housing for more than 1,000 chronically homeless individuals with complex health needs. Of those, 90 percent have remained in housing, with continued support for their health challenges from our staff.

Today, with the coronavirus spiking, the only safe place for people is at home. That is why, as a community, we must ensure that every D.C. resident has a safe, warm place to live. As we look ahead to a new year, let’s commit to making sure that the patron at the computer in the library, in the bathroom at the museum or in your favorite coffee shop will no longer be the person experiencing homelessness, but your neighbor.

Read more:

Patrick Geiger and Aaron Howe: D.C.’s homeless encampment ‘cleanups’ are only making things worse

Amy Freeman: Jobs won’t solve homelessness. Housing can.

Joseph Young: To solve D.C.’s homelessness problem, the city must talk to those affected

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