Late last year, the city of Colorado Springs shut down the Quarry, its largest homeless encampment, forcing its residents to disperse. As a result, says John Spears, executive director of Pikes Peak Library District (PPLD) in Colorado Springs, camping on library grounds reached its high point. About 90 people were sleeping on the grounds of PPLD’s Penrose branch on any given night, which Spears says fostered an unsafe environment for its regular unsheltered patrons as new people entered their camps. “It became increasingly unsafe and untenable for us to allow it,” he says. However, Spears and his colleagues wanted to consider solutions carefully: “We did not want to be one more place that just tried to play whack-a-mole and push the problem away.”
Ultimately, earlier this year the library instituted a camping ban, wherein anyone found between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m. on the grounds of one of PPLD’s four branches could be ticketed for trespassing if they didn’t leave. “It was one of the hardest things we’ve ever done,” says Spears.
Some libraries across the country—particularly on the West Coast, which has the highest rates of people experiencing homelessness, according to a 2018 report from the US Department of Housing and Urban Development—are finding more unsheltered people camping on their grounds after hours. At some locations this has created safety issues for all patrons and distractions for librarians. At one time, says Julie Retherford, director of Chetco Community Public Library (CCPL) in Brookings, Oregon, more than 20 people were living in the library’s parking lot. She estimates that a quarter of the library staffers’ time was spent mediating disputes between people living on the grounds and other patrons.
“Along with homelessness often comes mental illness or addiction, and those [conditions] would bring their own conflicts that would involve the police and keep our regular patrons from the library,” she says. In late 2018, the library board voted to prohibit overnight parking and the use of tents, tarps, structures, and furniture on library grounds. They needed to be especially careful in instituting the ban, as the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals had recently issued an opinion stating that criminalizing what the decision refers to as “life-sustaining” activities—like sleeping or camping—on the street is cruel and unusual punishment and violates the Constitution’s Eighth Amendment.
As librarians across the country serve and support all patrons regardless of housing status, it is clear that no one-size-fits-all solution exists for those who seek shelter after hours. In Seattle’s Ballard neighborhood, where the number of people experiencing homelessness has quadrupled in recent years, Seattle Public Library (SPL) has attempted to dissuade loitering by altering its architecture, first by removing tables and chairs in the front plaza of its Ballard branch, and then by installing metal bars on concrete blocks out front. This helped a little bit, says Regional Manager Kip Roberson, but the library still encountered issues with food debris, open alcohol consumption, outdoor bathroom use, and drug needles dropped through grates, all of which deterred other patrons from using the library.
“The open drug use, the harassment of patrons just reached a tipping point,” he says. This spring, a team of outreach workers and police asked the campers to move to a park across the street. He knows it’s only a temporary fix. “We arrive in the morning, and there are still often campers who have spent the night,” he says. “We say, ‘Good morning. The library’s opening soon, so we’ll need you to pack up and move your stuff off library property.’”
Making stronger connections
No solution regarding camping patrons comes without unease. “Conflicted is the right word,” says William O’Hearn, former director of Lincoln Library in Springfield, Illinois, of the city’s proposal to declare the library a closed campus in the evening. (The city council narrowly rejected the plan in July 2018 out of concerns that it would not effectively address the issue.)
The library property had turned into what O’Hearn describes as an “open-air bar” at night. He wants to make it clear that it wasn’t the library’s unsheltered regulars who were the issue—it was the 40–60 nighttime interlopers who came by to drink, sell or use drugs, engage in sex work, and harass and abuse the established campers. “While we wanted [the property] to be a community gathering space,” O’Hearn says, “I can’t say that was positive when people would defecate and urinate on the facilities.” A closed campus, he says, is different from a camping ban in that it does not target its unsheltered patrons specifically.
“It was [proposed] very intentionally to not isolate just unsheltered individuals,” he says.
O’Hearn notes that the closed campus proposal, though rejected, still helped the library establish stronger connections with other city agencies that work with the unsheltered population, like its homeless shelter, police, and hospitals.
PPLD’s Spears was glad to see that through library efforts to relocate its campers, Colorado Springs shelters saw an increase of 30 unsheltered patrons. “While it was difficult, I feel good that we did get people into a much safer and more stable environment than what we could provide at the library,” he says. Another tactic the library took—in an attempt to curtail the number of bedrolls, shopping carts, and luggage some patrons were bringing to the library—was to cordon off eight spots in the parking lot and designate bins for personal effects. “That is something that both the sheltered and unsheltered have appreciated,” he says.
Relocating camping patrons takes strategy, patience, and grace. Spears says that prior to the ban, the library put up signs, provided informational fliers, and made social service workers available to try to help campers find alternate locations. “We wanted, as much as possible, to make sure that they were aware of what the other options were. Our goal was to find as many of them shelter as possible,” he says. Library staffers worked closely with the Colorado Springs city attorney and police force to ensure they were adhering to the law and treating the campers with compassion. If police found someone who might be camping on the grounds of the library, for instance, “we didn’t want a citation to be issued straight off the bat,” Spears says.
Retherford says that prior to the legal process of removing the CCPL encampment, the library wanted to give the campers plenty of time and information on alternate places to go. “Most people cleared out before 48 hours were left,” she says. Some campers even helped others move out.
“People will come in and say to me, ‘Thanks for getting rid of them. It’s such a better place now that they’re gone.’ Well, we’re not getting rid of them. They’re still welcome.” Julie Retherford, director of Chetco Community Public Library in Brookings, Oregon
Christine Angeli, director of Milford (Conn.) Public Library, has had a smaller camping issue than her colleagues on the West Coast. Accordingly, the library decided against a curfew or parking ban. Instead it created a community group—including the mayor’s office, local police, health officials, the fire department, health care workers, and library staff members—to handle the issue effectively and with compassion. “We’re not evicting people just for being here outside the building. It has to be behavior based, whether it’s an altercation or substance abuse,” she says. She has also recommended resources to her staff, such as newsletters from Ryan J. Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness (ALA Editions, 2018).
Spears says that as difficult as the decision was to break up the library camp, there wasn’t much pushback, thanks to the relationships library staffers had built with their unsheltered users. “There had been a tremendous amount of trust built up between our library and our unsheltered users,” he says. “When we made the decision, they had the trust that we were not just one more agency that was trying to shuffle them along.”
Roberson says that even the campers outside SPL who need a little extra help waking up in the morning understand that librarians are allies. “Maybe they’re under the influence of something,” he says, “so you get a little pushback sometimes, but nobody’s really hostile. They understand where the library’s coming from, and they know that once the library is open, it’s a place they can come. They want to maintain that relationship with us.”
In contrast, it has been sheltered patrons who have often objected most vocally to bans and removals. Retherford calls the run-up to the camping removal a “frenzy.” At one board meeting, she says, 100 people showed up, and staff had to maintain the peace between shouting attendees. “I didn’t want this to turn into the idea that the library is against people without homes,” she says. “I was trying to take any opportunity I had to let anyone know that homeless people are always welcome here. Please come, please get warm, please use our facilities, please use our Wi-Fi.”
Spears encountered a similar reaction to PPLD’s ban. “That was probably one of the more upsetting parts of this—there was a part of the public that sees the library as one of the last refuges for people experiencing homelessness, and [they] felt we had betrayed that, even though the people experiencing homelessness did not,” he says. While Colorado Springs social service providers supported the library’s decision and were heavily involved in the campers’ removal, he says, “a lot of their self-appointed guardians felt that it was unfair.”
Also upsetting, Spears says, were the reactions from patrons who felt the ban was insufficient. “There’s always that group, unfortunately, who thinks that that no matter what you do when it comes to people experiencing homelessness, it’s never enough—they want them gone,” he says.
Retherford deals with similar feedback. “The only negative thing I face regarding this issue on an ongoing basis [is that] there’s always a small portion of the community who don’t want [unsheltered people] around,” she says. “There’s a lot of complaints about smell, about computers being used up. People will come in and say to me, ‘Thanks for getting rid of them. It’s such a better place now that they’re gone.’ Well, we’re not getting rid of them. They’re still welcome.”
Roberson has seen a similar reaction, which makes him wary of press coverage. “I worry whenever any of the local media calls,” he says. “The bias tends to be on the other side. I worry how this gets presented, no matter who is writing the story.” O’Hearn adds that news stories about removing encampments do not focus on what’s important: “Camping bans glaze over the fact that we help people get employment, get help.”
In Milford, at least, the public reaction has been one of concern, not outrage, with residents asking what they could do, and bringing food and blankets to the campers. “As far as those who are camping out—they were all Milford-born, Milford-raised,” says Angeli. “They’ve gone to school here and came upon hardships. They’re members of our community.”
The need for real solutions
After the initial conflict, the ban in Colorado seemed to help. “We had built such a good relationship with [the campers] that very little enforcement was necessary the first night. By that point, most of the people who had been camping here had already found other arrangements,” says Spears.
Retherford found the same: “Everyone was really respectful about it. ‘This is not where we can be any more.’ They just kind of moved on.” Now, she says CCPL staffers dedicate more time to patrons and spend less time mediating conflicts.
O’Hearn (who has since moved on to Eugene [Oreg.] Public Library), says an upside to the Springfield campus proposal was working with other organizations to address the issue holistically. “We were trying to focus on the whole situation rather than that particular moment,” he says. “What would be the long-term best thing that would happen? To get people the help they need to move forward with life.”
Thanks to the librarians’ engagement work in Pikes Peak, Spears says, the attitudes of many sheltered visitors seem to be softening. The library has been pulling meetings out of conference rooms and holding them in more central parts of the library. “As we’ve done more of these programs, we’re starting to see some of those barriers break down and the sheltered feel more comfortable around the unsheltered,” he says.
Roberson believes more librarians will need to face camping issues, especially after the US Court of Appeals decision in September. “While it may be difficult to accept at first, I don’t disagree with the decision,” he says. “I think it’s going to force Seattle and other cities to actually step back and stop criminalizing the activity, but it’ll force them to finally start talking about real solutions.”
In the meantime, librarians still addressing their camping issues can learn from colleagues who feel they handled the removal of tents in a respectful way. Retherford says that CCPL and the city moved slowly and carefully, with many meetings and discussions, and she thinks that it was to their benefit. “It ultimately did shake out the right way,” she says. Afterward, Chetco was held up as a city model. “[Community members] turned their focus to other organizations and different parks, saying, ‘Why aren’t you acting like the library did?’”
Angeli advises librarians in the same situation to involve their community partners. “As much as we deal with it as librarians, there are trained professionals who are more up to date on services and ways to handle anybody with mental health or substance abuse [issues],” she says. When librarians have built up relationships with homeless patrons, they may be able to ease them into accepting social services. “This isn’t a library problem. It’s an issue that’s facing the whole community,” she points out. “If an individual is camping outside your library, they’re surely camping out elsewhere in your city, and you can’t just push people from one place to another. You have to find a solution together.”