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OUR OPINION: A downtown-library issue: Homeless patrons

Diane Curtiss has a point, in her letter to the editor on this page. And if Grand Forks Public Library officials want to strengthen support for a downtown library, they should address it.

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Diane Curtiss has a point, in her letter to the editor on this page. And if Grand Forks Public Library officials want to strengthen support for a downtown library, they should address it.

The issue that Curtiss raises is one that, we suspect, is in the minds of many skeptics of a downtown location: the prospect of a downtown library becoming a day shelter for homeless and/or mentally ill patrons.

It's not a new worry, and neither is it misplaced. The problem of homelessness in American cities dates back decades, and libraries-especially downtown libraries-have served as de facto day shelters ever since.

For all of that time, librarians themselves have wrestled with their changing roles, often in thoughtful first-person accounts. Remember, the presence of homeless and/or mentally ill patrons means librarians often wind up serving as social workers-a job they're neither trained nor prepared for:

"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," wrote Chip Ward, the retired assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library System, in "What they didn't teach us in library school: The public library as an asylum for the homeless," a well-regarded 2007 piece.

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"In our public libraries, the outcasts are inside," Ward continued. "Like it or not, we are ushered into the ranks of auxiliary social workers with no resources whatsoever."

Furthermore, homelessness is a problem that varies by location. Experience suggests that Grand Forks' homeless population, while modest in size (compared to that of many small cities), tends to be concentrated downtown.

So, is it reasonable to assume that a downtown library would serve more homeless patrons during the day than would a library in midtown?

Perhaps that's unreasonable; but if so, we'd like to be told why.

Actually, we're more likely to be told that the whole premise of this concern is unreasonable, we suspect. The library is a public space, and that means it must be-and should be-as open to homeless and mentally ill patrons as it is to middle-class individuals, librarians to a person seem to say.

For remember, the problem is not libraries. The problem is homelessness. Here's Chip Ward, again, the retired librarian quoted above:

"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," he concludes.

"That information is no less important than the information we provide through databases and books."

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Ward, too, has a point. But in Grand Forks, the fact remains that the city now is debating whether to build a new library downtown, and the thorny, nationwide problem of homelessness is sure to be a factor in taxpayers' decisions.

What to do?

We think residents will be open to suggestions. These could include a vow by library officials to strictly enforce conduct rules-no sleeping in the library, no bathing in the bathrooms-and perhaps strengthen library security, coupled with City Council support for "Housing First" and other plans that can ease homelessness.

One way or another, though, library and city leaders should acknowledge this issue. Then they should address it, because doing so will be vital to winning public support.

-- Tom Dennis for the Herald

Related Topics: GRAND FORKS CITY COUNCIL
Opinion by Thomas Dennis
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