Man at MLK Library with his possessions in a trash bag. Photo by the author.

The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.

In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people’s library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city’s quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.

With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building’s immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.

Library has little recourse against problem patrons

"There was some man outside of the children’s section talking loudly about killing children,” an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. “There he is,” she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.

While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.

A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, “There is literally nothing we can do. Don’t get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don’t bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that’s it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be.”

Other cities have social workers to help the homeless

DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there’s a large homeless concentration.

The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has “turned the page” on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be “on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people’s behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly.”

Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.

Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week “vocational rehabilitation” program for the library’s homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers’ first job experience.

UPO van on its daily pick-up outside the MLK Library. Photo by the author.

San Francisco’s approach could be easily replicated in DC. Like clockwork vans from the United Planning Organization (UPO) come every evening to return the homeless to their respective shelter. UPO, the city’s official Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library’s homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.

Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library’s Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.

While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.