When was the last time you spent any time in a library? Other than to make a quick trip to the desk to pick up a book you previously reserved?
I’ll bet that I spend more time inside the library than most people. And that isn’t much time. But I’ll go in and cruise the new books section, both fiction and non-fiction. I’ll go into the stacks and look for another book by some author I already read. I’ll cruise their various displays of suggested reads, which are very creative. I often do this when I run out of ideas on my own, or haven’t read anything in the newspaper or heard something on NPR that catches my interest. I can always, always find something in the actual library.
There were years when I did not go to the library. And once I started going back, I discovered that some things never change. In big cities, libraries are well occupied by homeless people. Homeless men, I should say. I’ve only ever seen one woman I suspected was homeless. At a tiny out-of-the-way table near the B’s.
Libraries know this. And I quite respect the way “my” library deals with it. Most of the homeless men I see in the library are quietly occupying tables and reading. Some of them are on the computers. (Where you hope they’re looking for a job and actually finding one.)
But there seem to be rules. You can’t fall asleep. You can’t talk loud or otherwise “bother” other people. You can’t be drunk….or at least be obvious about it.
My library has a sheriff’s deputy permanently assigned to it. My assessment is that he generally hangs out on the first floor which is the children and youth area, and rigidly keeps away any hint of bad or sad people. So they mostly congregate on the second floor, the adult section.
If you get kicked out of the library, there is a little park across the street where the homeless men congregate, until they are then rousted by the city police. In my city, the homeless are “evicted” during the day from shelters. So during the day, they have to find somewhere to Be, and the message seems to me to be, Don’t Be Anywhere. We don’t want to see you. So the library seems like a good choice to me as a place to hide out during the day.
So yesterday I had what I would consider to be my first negative encounter with a homeless person in the library. I was at the reference desk, getting help to figure out how to load library books onto my Kindle, and a clearly homeless guy sidles up and starts giving advice. (“Great IPad!”, he says. “It’s really not that hard! All you have to do is push the buttons!”) He was also clearly intoxicated, first time I’ve ever seen that.
My new best friend at the reference desk, Mary, smoothly moves him down to the other end of the desk and says sweetly, “Can I help you with something else?” He says, “Uh, yeah, I need a computer.” She says, “Done! Your code is X123 and your computer is Number 19 over there in the corner!” This was obviously not her first rodeo.
Homeless people make everyone else uncomfortable, one of which I think is the “There but for the grace of God go I” feeling. They make me uncomfortable too, partly for that same reason. But part of it is feeling helpless: I can’t help you. Part of it is disgust for people who actually believe that if you’re homeless, it must be your fault. Most of it is the not being able to Be once you get there. Don’t Be anywhere I can see you, and preferably, don’t Be at all. If you do have to be homeless, then at least do me the favor of being very quiet and almost invisible.