USA: A slashed safety net turns public libraries into homeless shelters
- America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless
By Chip Ward, Tomdispatch.com. Posted April 2, 2007.
A dirty little secret about America is that public libraries have become
de facto daytime shelters for the nation's street people while librarians
are increasingly our unofficial social workers for the homeless and
Ophelia sits by the fireplace and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at
no one in particular. She gazes out the large window through the two pairs
of glasses she wears, one windshield-sized pair over a smaller set perched
precariously on her small nose. Perhaps four lenses help her see the
invisible other she is addressing. When her "nobody there" conversation
disturbs the reader seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles at the
woman's discomfort, and explains, "Don't mind me, I'm dead. It's okay.
I've been dead for some time now." She pauses, then adds reassuringly,
"It's not so bad. You get used to it." Not at all reassured, the woman
gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal
communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, but that's hard to do
since the rest of us, she informs me, "don't know the rules."
Margi is not so mellow. The "fucking Jews" have been at it again she tells
a staff member who asks her for the umpteenth time to settle down and stop
talking that way. "Communist!" she hisses and storms off, muttering that
she will "sue the boss." Margi is at least 70 and her behavior shows
obvious signs of dementia. The staff's efforts to find out her background
are met with angry diatribes and insults. She clutches a book on German
grammar and another on submarines that she reads upside down to "make
Mick is having a bad day, too. He hasn't misbehaved but sits and stares,
glassy-eyed. This is usually the prelude to a seizure. His seizures are
easier to deal with than Bob's, for instance, because he usually has them
while seated and so rarely hits his head and bleeds, nor does he ever soil
his pants. Bob tends to pace restlessly all day and is often on the move
when, without warning, his seizures strike. The last time he went down, he
cut his head. The staff has learned to turn him over quickly after he hits
the floor , so that his urine does not stain the carpet.
John is trying hard not to be noticed. He has been in trouble lately for
the scabs and raw, wet spots that are spreading across his hands and face.
Staff members have wondered aloud if he is contagious and asked him to get
himself checked-out, but he refuses treatment. He knows he is still being
tracked, thanks to the implants the nurse slipped under his skin the last
time he surrendered to the clinic and its prescriptions. There are
frequencies we don't hear -- but he does. Thin whistles and a subtle
beeping indicate he is being followed, his eye movements tracked and
recorded. He claims he falls asleep in his chair by the stairway because
"the little ones" poke him in the legs with sharp objects that inject
Franklin sits quietly by the fireplace and reads a magazine about
celebrities. He is fastidiously dressed and might be mistaken for a
businessman or a professional. His demeanor is confident and normal. If
you watch him closely, though, you will see him slowly slip his hand into
the pocket of his sports jacket and furtively pull out a long, shiny
carpenter's nail. With it, he carefully pokes out the eyes of the celebs
in any photo. Then the nail is returned to his pocket, a faint smirk
crossing his face as he turns the page to pursue his next photo victim.
Scenes from a psych ward? Not at all. Welcome to the Salt Lake City Public
Library. Like every urban library in the nation, the City Library, as it
is called, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city's "homeless."
Where the Outcasts Are Inside
In bad weather -- hot, cold, or wet -- most of the homeless have nowhere
to go but public places. The local shelters push them out onto the streets
at six in the morning and, even when the weather is good, they are already
lining up by nine, when the library opens, because they want to sit down
and recover from the chilly dawn or use the restrooms. Fast-food
restaurants, hotel lobbies, office foyers, shopping malls, and other
privately owned businesses and properties do not tolerate their presence
for long. Public libraries, on the other hand, are open and accessible,
tolerant, even inviting and entertaining places for them to seek refuge
from a world that will not abide their often disheveled and odorous
presentation, their odd and sometimes obnoxious behaviors, and the awkward
challenges they present to those who encounter them.
Although the public may not have caught on, ask any urban library
administrator in the nation where the chronically homeless go during the
day and he or she will tell you about the struggles of America's public
librarians to cope with their unwanted and unappreciated role as the
daytime guardians of the down and out. In our public libraries, the
outcasts are inside.
"Homeless" is a misleading term. We have homeless people in America today,
in part, because we have no living wage, no universal healthcare,
disintegrating communities, and a large population of working poor who can
end up on the street if they lose one of their part-time jobs, experience
an illness or an accident, or have a domestic crisis. For them,
homelessness is generally temporary, probably a once-in-a-lifetime
experience. There is little to distinguish such people from the rest of us
and we usually do not notice their presence among us. Programs to help
people in such circumstances may be inadequate -- and it is a shame they
are needed at all -- but they usually work. For the people we point to on
the street or in public places and normally identify as homeless, however,
homelessness is a way of life and our best attempts to rescue them
We commonly refer to them as "street people." We see them sleeping in
parks, huddled over grates on sidewalks, resting or sleeping on subway
cars, passed out in doorways, or panhandling with crude cardboard signs.
Social workers refer to them as the "chronically homeless." Although they
make up only about 10% of the total number of people who experience
homelessness in a given year, they soak up more than half the dollars we
spend on programs to address homelessness. There are at least 200,000
people across the nation living more or less permanently on the street,
enough to fill a thousand public libraries every day.
Drunk as a Skunk
The term "chronically homeless" is also inadequate when it comes to
describing these individuals -- it only tells you that their homeless
state is frequent. It neither indicates why they are homeless and stay
that way, nor says anything about their most salient characteristic: Most
of them are mentally ill. The published data on how many homeless are
considered mentally ill by those who study them varies widely from 10% to
70%, depending on whether all the homeless, or just the chronically
homeless, are included (and depending on how you define illness or
disability). How, for example, do you categorize alcoholics and drug
When Crash is sober, for instance, he reasons like you or me, converses
normally, and has a good sense of humor. Unfortunately, he is rarely
sober. In one of his better moments, he petitioned me to let him stay in
the library even though he was caught drinking -- an automatic six-month
suspension. "You know I'm a good guy and I don't bring that stuff into the
library," he pleads. "C'mon, give me another chance."
Crash is sitting in his wheelchair in the foyer outside my office where I
serve as the library's assistant director. It's hard for me to address
Crash without staring at the massive scar on his face -- a deep crease
that neatly divides it down the middle from scalp to chin. Unfortunately,
his nose is also divided and the sides do not match up, giving him an
asymmetrical appearance like a Picasso painting on wheels.
"Alcoholics pass out in the library's chairs," I explain, "and if we can't
wake you up we have to call the paramedics. If you piss your pants or
puke, the custodians have to clean that up and they hate that. You guys
fall down and knock things over. You're unpredictable when you drink. You
disrupt others. Public intoxication is against the law..."
"Okay, okay," he interrupts me, "I get it. Hey, just thought I'd try and
get back in is all -- no hard feelings, man."
No hard feelings I assure him. He smiles and we shake hands. I wish I
could cut him some slack -- after dozens of confrontations with angry and
threatening drunks, I appreciate a cheerful drinker like Crash -- but I
can't afford to establish a precedent I can't keep. The rule is clear: no
drinking in the library and no exceptions. As he waits for the elevator
doors to open and take him down, I venture a question I've been holding
onto for awhile. "I know it's none of my business, but how did you get
"Car accident," he replies, "same one as put me in this wheelchair. That's
why they call me Crash."
"Were you drinking?" I ask.
He shakes his head and sighs. "Drunk as a skunk ... drunk as a skunk." As
the elevator descends I think about just how hard it must be to be both
wheelchair-bound and homeless. I wonder about the commonly held notion
that alcoholics must "hit bottom" before they can rebound. Is there such a
thing as bottom for guys like Crash? Is he any more capable of controlling
his urge to drink than Ophelia can control the voices in her head?
Our condemnation of transient-style alcoholism is both hypocritical and
snobbish. If you are unhappy and caught without a prescription in America,
you self-medicate. Depressed lawyers do it with fine scotch. An unemployed
trucker might turn to beer or meth. Anxiety-ridden teachers or waitresses
might smoke pot or order just one more margarita. Indigent people who want
relief from their demons drink whatever is available and affordable or
swallow whatever pills come their way. Dr. Tichenor's mouthwash is a
popular choice for street alcoholics and "Doc Tich," as the brand is
commonly known, doesn't offer a pinot noir.
What Library School Didn't Cover
The strong odor of mouthwash on the breath of transient alcoholics who
shelter with us is often masked by the overwhelming odor of old sweat,
urine-stained pants, and the bad-dairy smell that unwashed bodies and
clothes give off. It can take your breath away long before you can smell
The library wrestles with where to draw the line on odor. The law is
unclear. An aggressive patron in New Jersey successfully sued a public
library for banning him because of his body odor. That decision has had a
chilling effect on public libraries ever since. When library users
complain about the odor of transients, librarians usually respond that
there isn't much they can do about it. Lately, libraries are learning to
write policies on odor that are more specific and so can be defended in
court, but such rules are still hard to enforce because smell is such a
subjective thing -- and humiliating someone by telling him he stinks is an
awkward experience that librarians prefer to avoid. None of this was
covered in library school.
It's a chicken-or-egg world for the mentally-ill homeless. Are they on the
street because they are immobilized by severe depression or is deep
depression the consequence of being on the street? Any tendency towards a
psychological problem is aggravated and magnified by the constant stress,
social isolation, loss of self-esteem, despair, and relentless boredom of
street life. Imagine the degradation of waiting an hour in the cold rain
to get into a soup kitchen for a meal; the hassle of hunting endlessly for
an unpoliced spot to sleep; the constant fear of being robbed or attacked
by other street people; or the indignity of defecating in a vacant lot.
It's a combination that would probably drive a mentally healthy person to
psychosis and substance abuse. Street people, who suffer serious
psychological disorders, are often substance abusers, too, and the drug
that a psychotic person prefers, often matches the psychosis. I have
learned, for example, that bi-polar users prefer cocaine when in their
manic phases and schizophrenics gravitate, naturally enough, to
Alcohol and drugs mix with depression, schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder,
and paranoia in complex ways, so it is hard to pull any given disorder
apart and understand just who this person in front of you, cursing or
pleading or thrashing on the floor, may be. Public librarians, of course,
are not trained to do this. We deal with behaviors that are symptomatic
without understanding why someone is suffering or what we can do about it.
And even if we did understand and had been trained for such situations,
healing the homeless is not our mission. Taxpayers expect us to provide
library services and leave the homeless to social workers. They give us
resources only for one mission, not two.
What about those social workers then? They turn out to be too few,
under-funded, over-worked, and overwhelmed. My initial unsuccessful
attempts to get the social workers who operate the "homeless van" to stop
in and assess a "regular" homeless patron who, we suspected, had suffered
a stroke, reminded me that they had more pressing priorities. In the dead
of winter, they struggle to get people sleeping in alleys or passed out on
sidewalks indoors so they don't freeze to death. Theirs is an everyday
"life or death" race. If a homeless guy is inside the library, then, "Hey,
Navigating the Archipelago of Despair
A workshop I attended on treating Native Americans for alcoholism
compellingly described how incorporating sweat lodges, healing ceremonies,
and other elements from Native American culture into established treatment
methods can improve their effectiveness for Native American patients. Of
course, the social worker added, it's essential to provide a halfway-house
option between rehab and release and that remains a huge problem.
Typically, he told us, his clients wait three to six months to get into a
halfway-house after rehab.
"And where do they go while they wait?" I asked, naively enough.
He shrugged and sighed. "Back with their drinking buddies in the park,
under the bridge, wherever."
The inadequacy of existing resources and the absurdity of the conditions
they endure are just part of the landscape, a given for social workers.
Public librarians can cooperate with (and learn from) them, but we
understand that they are overwhelmed and often unavailable. So, like it or
not, we are ushered into the ranks of auxiliary social workers with no
Local hospitals are also uncertain allies. They have little room for the
indigent mentally ill for whose treatment they often can't get reimbursed.
So they deal with the crisis at hand, fork over some pills, and send the
hopeless homeless on their way.
A manager at a shelter-clinic told me that he keeps a stash of petty cash
handy because sometimes a taxi arrives at his door from one of the city's
hospitals, carrying an incoherent patient without ID or any possessions
other than the hospital gown he or she is wearing. When that happens,
clinic workers are instructed to rush for the cab before it can unload its
passenger and pay the driver to return to the hospital, puzzled cargo
still in hand.
Throughout the fragmented system of healthcare for homeless people, from
rehab to hospitals to jails, there are few ground rules or protocols for
discharging the mentally ill and next to no communication between
healthcare providers, police, social workers, and shelter managers in this
archipelago of despair. Public librarians are out of the loop altogether;
our role in providing daytime shelter for the homeless is ignored. When,
in an attempt to build my own useful network, I attended conferences on
homeless issues, I was always met with puzzlement and the question: "What
are you doing here?"
"Where do you think they go during the day?" I would invariably answer.
"Oh, yeah, I guess that's right -- you deal with them, too," would be the
invariable response, always offered as if that never occurred to them
Paramedics are caught in the middle of this dark carnival of confusion and
neglect. In the winter, when the transient population of the library
increases dramatically, we call them almost every day. Once, when I
apologized to a paramedic for calling twice, he responded, "Hey, no need
to explain or apologize." He swept his arm towards the other paramedics,
surrounding a portable gurney on which they would soon carry a disoriented
old man complaining of dizziness to the emergency room. "Look at us," he
said, "we're the mobile homeless clinic. This is what we do. All day long,
day after day, and mostly for the same people over and over."
Sanitizing Gels and Latex Gloves: Plying the Librarian's Trade
The cost of this mad system is staggering. Cities that have tracked
chronically homeless people for the police, jail, clinic, paramedic,
emergency room, and other hospital services they require, estimate that a
typical transient can cost taxpayers between $20,000 and $150,000 a year.
You could not design a more expensive, wasteful, or ineffective way to
provide healthcare to individuals who live on the street than by having
librarians like me dispense it through paramedics and emergency rooms. For
one thing, fragmented, episodic care consistently fails, no matter how
many times delivered. It is not only immoral to ignore people who are
suffering illness in our midst, it's downright stupid public policy. We do
not spend too little on the problems of the mentally disabled homeless, as
is often assumed, instead we spend extravagantly but foolishly.
And the costs could grow far beyond the measure of money. If an epidemic
of deadly flu were to strike, if an easily communicable strain of
tuberculosis or some other devastating disease emerges, paramedics will be
overwhelmed by their homeless clients who are at high risk for such
illnesses. People who drink until they pass out tend to aspirate and
choke, and people who sleep outdoors at night breathe cold, damp air.
People who sleep in crowded shelters breathe each other's air.
Serious respiratory problems among the chronically homeless in a shelter
are as common as beer guts at a racetrack. If an epidemic strikes, the
susceptibility of the homeless will translate into an increased risk of
exposure for the rest of us and, eerily enough, our public libraries could
become Ground Zeroes for the spread of killer flu. Librarians are
reluctant to make plans for handling such scenarios because we do not want
to convey the message that America's libraries are anything but the safe
and welcoming environments they remain today.
But here's the thing: It's not just about libraries. The chronically
homeless share bus stops, subways, park benches, handrails, restrooms,
drinking fountains, and fast-food booths with us or with others we
encounter daily, who also share the air we breathe and the surfaces we
touch. When sick or drunk, they vomit in public restrooms (if we are
lucky). Having a population that is at once vulnerable to disease and able
to spread microbes widely to others is simply foolish -- and unnecessary
-- public policy, but in the library we focus on more immediate risks. We
offer our staff hepatitis vaccinations and free tuberculosis checks. We
place sanitizing gels and latex gloves at every public desk. Who would
guess that working in a library could be a hazardous occupation?
In Place of Snake-Pit Hospitals, Snake-pit Jails
Ultimately, the indigent mentally ill are criminalized. If their presence
in our libraries is a common and growing problem that we librarians would
like the rest of society to be aware of, acknowledge, and commit
themselves to helping us solve, here is a secret we would like to keep to
ourselves: We are complicit. No matter how conscientiously and
compassionately we try to treat our mentally disturbed users -- and at the
Salt Lake City Public Library we work very hard to be fair, helpful, and
tolerant -- librarians often have no good choices and, in the end, we just
call the cops.
Take, for example, the case of a young man who entered the library fuming
and spitting racial and ethnic slurs. He loudly asked some Hispanic
teenagers, who were doing their homework, when they crossed the border and
they reported his rude behavior. When a security guard approached, the
young man started yelling obscenities and then took a swing at him. To his
credit, the guard backed off and tried to calm him; but, on the next
lunge, the guard took the kid down, cuffed his hands behind his back, and
called the police. They recognized him. He had been let out of jail just
two days earlier. Putting him back there, staff members argued, obviously
wasn't going to make a difference. Shouldn't he be taken to a hospital for
The police pointed out that he was simply too strong and violent to be
handled at a hospital, so he would have to go to jail. While waiting to be
taken away, the kid turned some corner in his mind and left sobbing.
His behavior was not a measure of his character or even of his civility,
but of how severe his psychosis had become without treatment and under the
stress of prison. The man was sick, not bad. If we accept that
schizophrenia, for instance, is not the result of a character flaw or a
personal failing but of some chemical imbalance in the brain -- an
imbalance that can strike regardless of a person's values, beliefs,
upbringing, social standing, or intent, just like any other disease --
then why do we apply a kind of moral judgment we wouldn't use in other
medical situations? We do not, for example, jail a diabetic who is acting
drunk because his body chemistry has become so unbalanced that he is going
into insulin shock, but we frequently jail schizophrenics when their brain
chemistries become so unbalanced that they act out, as if punishment were
the appropriate and effective response to a mental disorder.
And the police aren't happy about their role either. Cities are responding
to such problems with mental health courts and the like for sorting out
the mentally disturbed from other prisoners. Salt Lake City now has a
model program, but nationally there is a long way to go.
According to the Department of Justice, there are about four times as many
people with mental illnesses incarcerated in America today as under
treatment in state mental hospitals. Some jails devote entire wings to the
Jails, of course, are intended to control, intimidate, and humiliate. Such
a dehumanizing environment can be especially devastating for the mentally
ill. I am particularly wary when dealing with street people who are
recently out of jail because they are likely to be in an especially
agitated state. Of course, cops and jailers are no better trained or
prepared than librarians to handle people with serious psychological
problems. This is a bond we share -- our unacknowledged charge and our
inevitable failure to meet it.
In the 1980s, during the Reagan administration, the discharged mentally
ill began to be "deinstitutionalized" from crowded hospitals with "snake
pit" conditions where they got inadequate treatment. They were supposed to
be integrated into local communities and cared for by local clinics. That
was the dream anyway, but such humane alternatives to indifferent
hospitalization failed to materialize.
The clinics were never built and the communities that were supposed to
embrace the mentally ill didn't get the memo. The safety net that was to
catch them proved to be chockfull of holes. Instead, they migrated to
urban psychiatric ghettoes -- alleys, parks, abandoned buildings, vacant
lots, and flophouses. As housing became more competitive and costly in the
1990s, they were further compressed into the margins of society where
their suffering festered like an open wound. Now, it is up to the police
to re-institutionalize them -- but this time in snake-pit prisons where
they generally receive no treatment at all. So, in the last couple of
decades, we have exchanged revolving doors to padded cells for revolving
doors to jail cells with steel bars.
The cost of keeping a mentally-ill person in jail is not cheap. In Utah,
it turns out to be the yearly equivalent of tuition at an Ivy League
college. For that kind of taxpayer money, we could get our mentally ill
off the streets and into stable housing environments with enough leftover
for the kinds of support services most of them need to stay off the
street. Again, the right thing to do for them may also be the most
practical choice for us. We could solve the problem for less than it costs
to manage it. In the meanwhile, they will cycle between the jail and the
library. Is it any wonder that they crave a calm and entertaining
environment after weeks, months, or years of fear and noise in jail? From
a taxpayer's perspective, however, it seems cheaper to warehouse them in
the library, between stints in jail -- or simply to pay no attention to
where they are at all.
Even if treatment options were not so scarce and inadequate, many of the
mentally ill would not get treatment because they refuse to be treated.
Paranoia is rampant on the street and paranoid people do not willingly
submit to strange doctors and nurses who might "implant" something in them
-- or worse. The cops, paramedics, and social workers can't take a person
to the hospital just because he is ranting incoherently. He has to be a
danger to himself or others.
Committing the mentally ill, homeless or otherwise, to treatment
facilities against their wills is a civil liberties conundrum. As a
political activist with controversial ideas, I am sensitive to the issues
raised when citizens are forced into treatment. Images of Soviet
dissidents getting dragged into psych wards and drugged come immediately
to mind. But when a person is hallucinating and clearly upset, it is hard
to accept, as I have often heard from social workers and the police, that
"nothing can be done."
Sid was in his twenties when he came to us -- a tall, lanky, blond kid
with a scraggly beard who walked around rumpled and slump-shouldered, his
head hung in a beaten-dog kind of way. He avoided eye-contact and was very
quiet most of the time. He liked to read graphic novels and comic books.
Occasionally, though, he would jump up and move quickly outside where he
would shout and twitch uncontrollably. He seemed to sense when his
Tourette's Syndrome would strike and wanted to spare us.
On his worst days, he was troubled by hallucinations and voices he would
answer in exasperated whispers. The police told me he had been raped by
other transients -- a common occurrence on the street, bound to aggravate
and complicate existing psychological disorders. When addressed directly,
Sid was unfailingly polite and soft-spoken. Sometimes, we saw him eating
scraps from garbage receptacles. The library staff worried about him,
replaced his clothes when they fell apart, and bought him food when he
grew thin and pale.
Sid, however, refused treatment. The case could be made that Sid was a
danger to himself. After all, he often wasn't coherent enough to acquire
food for himself. But nobody made that case. One day Sid disappeared.
Staff members looked for him on the street and asked other homeless
patrons if they had seen him. No one knew a thing and we never saw him
again. I often wonder what happened to him. I like to imagine that he was
rescued by family members who had been looking for him. It's far more
likely that Sid's demons led him to a bus and that he's wandering the
margins of another alien city where "nothing can be done."
We see so much despair of Sid's sort among the lost souls who shelter at
the library that, by winter's end -- our "homeless season" -- we often
find ourselves hard put to cope with our own feelings of depression and
frustration. As one library manager told me, "I struggle not to
internalize what I experience here, but there are days I just go home and
burst out in tears." She is considering leaving the profession.
Another colleague started out in social work and transitioned to a library
career when she found she couldn't handle the emotional stress of dealing
with her down-and-out clients. Imagine her surprise to rediscover her
feelings of despair while working in the library. "I deal with the same
clientele," she told me one day, "but now I have no way of making a
difference. I still go home feeling sad and discouraged that, in a nation
as rich and powerful as ours, we abandon mentally ill people on the
streets and then resent them for being sick in public."
There is hope, however. After decades of studies by various task forces,
followed by experiments by local governments, a consensus has emerged that
the most effective way to help chronically homeless people is to stabilize
them in housing first and then offer treatment. Social scientists and
policy-makers have concluded, logically enough, that it is hard to "get
better" while living in a stressful, demeaning, and unstable environment
and easier to recover when one feels safe and secure.
This "housing first" strategy isn't cheap, but it is far more realistic
and effective than requiring people to get better as a prerequisite for
housing -- and it costs much less than failing the way we do now. Salt
Lake County, like many local governments, has created a ten-year plan to
end homelessness based on housing-first principles. The wheel of reform is
moving slowly, however, and many people who need help now will suffer and
die on the street before things can turn their way (if they ever actually
do). And the librarians at the City Library and the good citizens of Salt
Lake will watch them struggle daily, while waiting for saner policies to
Gaining the World and Losing Each Other
In the meantime, the Salt Lake City Public Library -- Library Journal's
2006 "Library of the Year" -- has created a place where the diverse ideas
and perspectives that sustain an open and inclusive civil society can be
expressed safely, where disparate citizens can discover common ground,
self-organize, and make wise choices together. We do not collect just
books, we also gather voices. We empower citizens and invite them to
engage one another in public dialogues. I like to think of our library as
the civic ballroom of our community where citizens can practice that
awkward dance of mutuality that is the very signature of a democratic
And if the chronically homeless show up at the ball, looking worse than
Cinderella after midnight? Well, in a democratic culture, even disturbing
information is useful feedback. When the mentally ill whom we have thrown
onto the streets haunt our public places, their presence tells us
something important about the state of our union, our national character,
our priorities, and our capacity to care for one another. That information
is no less important than the information we provide through databases and
books. The presence of the impoverished mentally ill among us is not an
eloquent expression of civil discourse, like a lecture in the library's
auditorium, but it speaks volumes nonetheless.
The belief that we are responsible for each other's social, economic, and
political well-being, that we will care for our weakest members
compassionately, should be the keystone in the moral architecture of a
democratic culture. We will not stand by while our fellow citizens are
deprived of their fellowship and citizenship -- which is why we ended
racial segregation and practices like poll taxes that kept disenfranchised
Americans powerless. We will not let children starve. We do not consign
orphans to the streets like they do in Brazil or let children be sold into
prostitution as they do in Thailand. We are proud of our struggles to meet
people's basic needs and to encourage inclusion. Why, then, are the
mentally ill still such an exception to those fundamental standards?
America is proud of its hyper-individualism, our liberation from the bonds
of tribe and the social constraints of traditional societies. We glorify
the accomplishments of inventors, innovators, entrepreneurs, pioneers, and
artists. But while some individuals thrive and the cutting edge of our
technology is wondrous, the plight of the chronically homeless tells me
that our communities are also fragmented and disintegrating. We may have
gained the world and lost each other.
The Penan nomads of Sarawak, Borneo, members of an indigenous and primal
culture, have no technology or material comforts that compare with our
mighty achievements. They have one word for "he," "she," and "it." But
they have six words for "we." Sharing is an obligation and is expected, so
they have no phrase for "thank you." An American child is taught that
homelessness is regrettable but inevitable since some people are bound to
fail. A child of the Penan is taught that a poor man shames us all.
Ophelia is not so far off after all -- in a sense she is dead and has been
for some time. Hers is a kind of social death from shunning. She is
neglected, avoided, ignored, denied, overlooked, feared, detested, pitied,
and dismissed. She exists alone in a kind of social purgatory. She waits
in the library, day after day, gazing at us through multiple lenses and
mumbling to her invisible friends. She does not expect to be rescued or
redeemed. She is, as she says, "used to it."
She is our shame. What do you think about a culture that abandons
suffering people and expects them to fend for themselves on the street,
then criminalizes them for expressing the symptoms of illnesses they
cannot control? We pay lip service to this tragedy -- then look away fast.
As a library administrator, I hear the public express annoyance more often
than not: "What are they doing in here?" "Can't you control them?"
Annoyance is the cousin of arrogance, not shame.
We will let Ophelia and the others stay with us and we will be firm but
kind. We will wait for America to wake up and deal with its Ophelias
directly, deliberately, and compassionately. In the meantime, our patrons
will continue to complain about her and the others who seek shelter with
us. Yes, we know, we say to them; we hear you loud and clear. Be patient,
please, we are doing the best we can. Are you?
Tagged as: homeless shelters, libraries
Chip Ward recently retired as the assistant director of the Salt Lake City
Public Library System to devote more time to political activism and
writing. He's the author of Canaries on the Rim: Living Downwind in the
West and Hope's Horizon: Three Visions for Healing the American Land.
Zapopan Martín Muela Meza
Doctorando Estudios Informacion
University of Sheffield
"Solo son verdaderas personas
quienes arrancan al hombre
las cadenas que sujetan su razon."
--Maximo Gorki, novela La Madre, cap. XVII, parte I
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