Library or Homeless Shelter? We Need to Figure These Things Out

Library or Homeless Shelter? We Need to Figure These Things Out

Prior to this week’s Philadelphia Mayoral and City Council primary elections, The Inquirer Editorial Board posed a series of questions to the Mayoral hopefuls, focusing on seven important issues in the city. I was surprised that none of the issues dealt specifically with homelessness, which the city still hasn’t managed to adequately address. My own recent experience brought the problem home to me.

I always wanted to be a full-time writer. I enjoy writing, and always have. But writers don’t make much money, and there were mouths to feed and tuition bills to pay. So I worked for thirty years in the chemical industry, followed by a dozen years in my second career, on the faculty and staff of Ursinus College.

But now it is time, at age 66, to pursue my third career as a full time writer, and that is what I am now about. I’ve managed to have a few columns published, in the Inquirer and elsewhere, while I work on a business book.

Of course, one of the tools every writer needs is a good library. I have been fortunate to have had access to the Ursinus library these past twelve years, along with their connection to the collegiate inter-library lending program that can locate almost any book I could possibly need.

But there is also the Free Library of Philadelphia, and I’m ashamed to say that, although I worked in Center City for many years, I had never been inside the Central Branch located on the Parkway.

This changed in March when I headed to the Library for their daily library tour at 10:00 am. Following the tour, I would procure a library card and begin to use the library for frequent research to support my Pulitzer Prize – level writing.

Walking up the Parkway toward the Library building, I was struck by how isolated the building seemed to look, situated across large expanses of concrete and asphalt, fronted by the fences lining the walkways that span the Vine Street Expressway, and close by the small park area where the homeless have been gathering for many years. On that morning, there were a significant number of homeless men, as they looked through boxes of warm clothes that had been placed for them on the sidewalk.

I know that there has been controversy over the fact that homeless gather on this portion of the Parkway. Investments in the Barnes Museum, the new Mormon Temple, the Sisters Cities Park, and the planned renovation of the old family court building as a luxury hotel, all are at an uncomfortable juxtaposition with the homeless in the park.

I recall that Mayor Nutter proposed that a new ordinance be enacted that would prohibit feeding the homeless outdoors, a measure probably aimed at this site, in the hope that the homeless could be gently guided away from this location to facilities that offer more warmth, nutrition and safety. I also recall resistance to that proposal by many well-intentioned citizens who minister to the homeless.

I was wondering where the issue currently stood as I entered the main doors of the central branch. The docent was waiting to escort five of us through the facility, and she was an excellent tour guide. I was taken by the sweep and grandeur of the building, its history, the many resources it offers, and the exquisite architectural details in granite and marble.

But there was something else that surprised me – homeless men and women, in almost every library reading room and in front of virtually all of the computer terminals set aside for public use. Some were surfing the web, others sat at tables and appeared to be reading, but many just stared off into space, their possessions on the floor next to them.

I understand the situation. It was cold outside, the library was warm, and they were seeking shelter in this public space. Unprompted, the docent volunteered that the staff works with the homeless as gently as possible, and in fact told us that homeless advocate Sister Mary Scullion was instrumental in having the library cafe staffed by formerly homeless men and women, an achievement indeed.

I wondered how many people might use the library, but choose not to, because of the presence of so many homeless. Like I said, I understand why they were there. But I also understand that it is a library, to be used for that purpose. I noted a sign on one table that said that this particular table was reserved for people with laptops. I guess that is one way of creating some separation.

The brochure I picked up indicated that the Central Branch has over a million visitors a year — many for readings and children’s programs no doubt, and others visiting as tourists on the Parkway. I just don’t know how many come for serious research, or what the possibilities are. All I know is that I felt ambivalent about the situation.

I got my library card and headed home, thinking about the many issues around homelessness. It is a complex problem, and I’m certainly no expert. But it seems that the Central Branch is just one example of an ongoing issue that needs to be addressed both sensitively and sensibly.

I shared my ambivalence with a young woman who lives in Washington, DC. She is by far the most caring and giving person I know. When I told her about my experience at the Library, she very matter of factly said. “That’s the way it is at my library, and why I don’t go there”.

There is much work to do. I hope that the next mayor, and the seventeen City Council members who will be elected this fall, can find a solution that works for all.