Libraries USA: Open Universities - or Homeless People Barred? FWD

Tom Boland (
Thu, 18 Mar 1999 21:30:56 -0800 (PST)
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FWD  Bergen Record [New Jersey, USA]


     Wednesday, March 17, 1999

     Staff Writer

One woman loses herself in celebrity biographies of such figures as Bette
Davis and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis.

Another pores over encyclopedia entries and jots down vocabulary words she
hopes to draw on the day she writes her novel. A middle-aged man, too
strapped to afford even a daily newspaper, reads The New York Times and The
Wall Street Journal to keep up on current events, including the
presidential race of 2000.

Each of these people is homeless, and each spends day after day in the same
place: the Johnson Public Library in Hackensack. Similar scenes are played
out every day in Paterson, Teaneck, and a number of other cities in the

Shielded from the often still-wintry chill in the air, they while away
hours on end, then shuffle off to a soup kitchen for lunch or dinner and to
a shelter to sleep.

In Bergen County, advocates say, the situation underscores the need for a
proposed 24-hour shelter and drop-in center that would offer a range of
services including job training and counseling and treatment for mental
illness and substance abuse.

"The fact that the library is here is a blessing," Ed Gage, a 45-year-old
homeless man, said at the Hackensack library last week, taking a break from
his newspaper. "But if I had something else to do, I'd do that."

>From Boca Raton, Fla., to the Chicago suburbs to San Francisco, public
libraries -- long considered the most democratic of places -- have wrestled
over how to deal with the homeless. Some have hired security guards, while
others have enacted rules forbidding chronic sleeping, or bathing or washing
clothes in the restrooms.

What many consider a landmark case on the issue grew out of a dispute at
the Morristown public library in 1991. A homeless man, Richard Kreimer,
sued after being expelled from the library for staring and for his odor.

Kreimer initially won the case, and he reached a lucrative settlement with
the library's insurance company. But a federal appeals court overturned the
verdict, ruling that a public library can, within reason, turn away patrons
who create a nuisance.

At the main branch of the Paterson Free Public Library, a handful of
homeless men come in each day, including some from the Good Shepherd
Mission, a nearby overnight shelter.

Among them is Robert Underwood, 37, who said he finds solitude amid the
stacks. On Tuesday morning, he sat in the sun-lit periodical room on the
second floor, reading the sports pages of a newspaper, his personal Bible
wrapped in a plastic grocery bag beside him.

"It's about the only place around that you can come in and there's no
questions asked," said Underwood, who sleeps in an abandoned building
because he doesn't like the strict rules of a shelter.

Although the library has posted a set of rules forbidding weapons, public
indecency, and bare feet, among other things, none pertain specifically to
the homeless. In fact, said the director, Kwaku Amoabeng, the library tries
not to deny access to anyone.

"That's our mission," he said. "We're a poor man's university."

In Passaic County, two men's shelters in Paterson, Eva's Kitchen and St.
Paul Episcopal Church, recently increased their number of beds, said
Derrick Williams, a coordinator at Eva's Kitchen. Also, he said, Eva's
Kitchen recently acquired a former silk mill on Spring Street that the
organization plans to convert to a women's shelter to supplement its
current 10 beds for homeless women.

The Hackensack library hasn't had a serious problem with a homeless patron,
although several who have borrowing cards have overdue books out, said
Maureen Taffe, the library's director. Purposely, she said, the library
does not single out the homeless in its regulations or treatment by its

"I don't ask people or look at people and say, 'Are you homeless?' " Taffe
said Tuesday. "Our job as public librarians is to give service to every
patron, not to inquire about their background."

The Teaneck Public Library specifically forbids patrons who are drunk or
mentally disturbed, and those who panhandle, habitually sleep, or behave
eccentrically on the premises, said its director, Michael McCue. Offensive
body odor, he said, also would not be allowed.

Generally, the library has few homeless visitors, but for a period in late
January and early February, several showed up every day. The men reeked of
body odor and brought in food, which is also against the rules, McCue said.

He called in the town's human services director, Beverly Beard, who asked
the homeless men whether there was anything she could do to help them. The
men took umbrage and left, saying they were heading back to Hackensack,
McCue said. They haven't returned.

On a given night in Hackensack, advocates say, there can be 100 or more
people sleeping in shelters or on the street.

Although services for the homeless are available in the city, they are
provided at a scattering of outposts that are inconvenient for people who
must regularly shuttle between them. Bergen County officials proposed a new
24-hour shelter and drop-in center last year and have been negotiating with
Hackensack officials over a location for months.

Meanwhile, advocates say, the need for a centralized facility remains strong.

"These guys are forced to sit in libraries and bus stations all day because
we fail to make accommodations for the most hard-pressed people of our very
prosperous area," said Paul Burns, who runs a ministry in Bogota that aids
the homeless.

In Hackensack, several homeless people described the library not just as a
haven from the cold or a place to kill time, but as a resource for learning.

Dorothy Cahill, 42, and her husband, Bill, stay in a Hackensack shelter and
visit the Main Street library often. She favors biographies of famous
people. "It's interesting to know what kind of lifestyle they had," she
said. "They didn't have it all that easy, believe me."

Joan Simon, a 61-year-old widow who has been homeless for seven years,
hunched over a paperback novel on a recent afternoon, a break from her
usual reading, the encyclopedia. Beside her was a small yellow pad with
words such as "grandeur" and "profound." She is building her vocabulary in
hopes of writing a novel.

"I like coming here to learn things, to keep my mind moving," she said as
she snapped her fingers twice. "It's reading, it's learning -- not just to
come out of the cold."

**In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. section 107, this material is
distributed without charge or profit to those who have expressed a prior
interest in receiving this type of information for non-profit research and
educational purposes only.**

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