Libraries for All, Except the Homeless?

I stopped off at the Capitol Hill branch of the Seattle Public Library today while I was in the neighborhood to take advantage of the all day Sunday 4 cent happy hour copies at Perfect Copy and Print to make copies for our upcoming Amnesty International meeting.


I hadn’t been in the Capitol Hill branch since the remodel, and I really liked what they did with it, especially the cushioned window seats where people can sit and read. I’m really envious.  We don’t have anything like that at the University District branch.

I noticed the rules for the window seats and especially with the ones on not laying down or sleeping struck me as targeting the homeless, and indeed a homeless man was warned while I was browsing the stacks, claiming he had just nodded off while reading. 

Then there was the rule on not taking off your shoes in the window seats, where college students with their laptops and moms with their children were sitting in with their feet up on the cushions in their shoes. Hmm, my mom always said shoes off the furniture!

Another sign warned against bringing too large of a backpack, which also seemed to me to be targeting the homeless carrying all their worldly possessions.

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Another backpack rule I witnessed a homeless man run afoul of yesterday evening at the University District Branch (yes, our’s is prettier, though – an old Carnegie building) was a rule that you can’t leave your possessions unattended or the library will immediately confiscate them.  This was broadcast by loudspeaker to the whole library (as you can see, a very small branch) before the librarian talked to the homeless man who was reunited with his belongings and warned.

All these rules of the library, and even though I remember reading something about rule changes to harass (oh, I’m sorry, bring civility) to the homeless, most of which I wasn’t aware of even a couple of days ago, and any of which I could have run afoul of, too.  Though probably not, because I’m not homeless (though I can look pretty scruffy some days). . .

It turns out the actual library rule is against “appearing to be sleeping” in the library.  I believe I have rested my eyes sometimes when I have came in a little tired and sat down with my books at a branch while browsing. 

I’ve been worried about the 14 x 17 x 20 rule on backpacks, which appears elsewhere (or maybe smaller? at Bumpershoot or for the Mariners game) and I haven’t found the measuring tape to check mine, but according to a story on KUOW it’s set to airline carry-on bag regulation and I’ve never had trouble there (in fact before the liquids issue forced me check my bag with shampoo, etc., my backpack was my “personal item” stored under my seat.  Granted, I was starting to get leg cramps.). While I can go with a purse to a concert or game, the very nature of the library means hauling books both directions most visits, and I travel by bus. . .

Leaving my belongings though? Well, I wouldn’t go very far, having learned my lesson at the Portland State University Library when I was a returning student.  I was sick that day and ignored the sign about thieves when I needed to go to the ladies’ room while studying.  It was gone when I got back, though fortunately the police recovered it with a bunch of other stolen goods a day or so later.  It had all my notes!

Back to using Seattle’s libraries. . . I have been known to put my backpack down and browse nearby or even get up and look for another book after I have my notebook out and bag open, all within sight of my bag; but still, was I in violation of this regulation I didn’t even know about?  Again, not that it probably would matter, unless I look homeless that day.

When did it become part of a librarian’s job to harass the homeless?  I’m kind of glad I didn’t go back to school to get my library degree now. What I loved about working in libraries through high school (at the St. Helens Public Library in Oregon) and both times at college was helping people and encouraging them to read and helping them find material, not driving them off.

While some or maybe most of the library rules are reasonable and necessary, the ones about things like sleeping (or appearing to sleep) and regulating backpacks are part of the move toward criminalizing homelessness. Of course the homeless often have all their possessions (if they can’t find any shelter or public locker to store them) and may be a little sleepy.

Then there is those always paired regulations against “having offensive odor or personal hygiene” and not using library facilities to bathe.  While certainly not the ideal situation; the reason it is a problem at the library is that is the attitude toward the homeless in general.  While everyone is offended that they smell, we often don’t have the facilities available for them to bathe, and in fact the same people opposed to odor are against funding hygiene centers.

I know part of what’s behind regulating/criminalizing the homeless is the “broken windows” theory.  That somehow the allowing the homeless in, to use the library, for example, and more bad things will follow.  I think the real “broken window,” though, is that there are homeless, that we don’t have enough places for them to stay.