Public libraries and other free facilities often become hangouts for the homeless and other people who have nowhere else to go. Due to numerous complaints from patrons about a homeless person's body odor, the Schaumburg Township District Library in suburban Chicago recently added "offensive body odors" to its list of prohibitions for which staff members can ask patrons to leave. Accordingly, the Chicago public libraries ban people who carry more than two bags or who try to bathe, shave or wash their clothes on the premises. Advocates for the homeless view the policies as attempts to exclude homeless people from the libraries.
In a recent survey of 1,300 public libraries, staff members who responded to the survey viewed patrons with untreated severe mental illnesses as a greater threat to the future of America's public libraries than the Internet. Many librarians surveyed said that they had witnessed assaults on other staff members by mentally ill visitors, and that patrons with mental illnesses had necessitated changes in library policies.
Barry Ackerson, associate dean and director of the master's program in the School of Social Work, talked with News Bureau reporter Sharita Forrest about society's struggles to balance inclusion and open access with concerns about safety.
What is your reaction to policies such as those at public libraries that seem to exclude homeless or mentally ill patrons?
I have some very strong feelings about them, but I'm not an unbiased person. My late wife, to whom I was married for 30 years, was an academic librarian, so I have some feelings for the issues that librarians contend with.
The libraries are struggling with the fact that they're public institutions - anyone can walk in, any time and use their resources. They're concerned about fulfilling that public mission. In our current economy, when governments are struggling financially, social services often are either level-funded or cut, and that's when you see these kinds of problems. The library is just an example of a public space where people who aren't being adequately served will show up.
If someone is simply wearing old, tattered clothes and hasn't bathed recently, I firmly believe that people in our society need to respect that that person has a right to live in our community. If they're bothering other people, it's a different issue. If it's a public space, any member of society has a right to occupy that space as long as they're not interfering with the rights of other people. In our own community, we have an ill-kempt man who frequents Lincoln Square Mall. It's a little unsettling for some people. Storeowners are concerned that he impacts their business. I walk in the mall for exercise, and I've seen him. He really doesn't bother anybody.
But what if they make other people uneasy or scare other patrons away from public spaces?
If that person is actually bothering people or behaving erratically, then you may be dealing with a potentially dangerous situation. But there's a distinction between the homeless person who's dirty and unkempt but not bothering anybody, and the homeless person whose behavior is possibly threatening or dangerous. Then it's a safety issue.
The problem for libraries is when these people walk in, what do they do? Call the police or a social worker? Ever since the move for deinstitutionalization 20 years ago, communities have been concerned about what to do with people who look different or act different. We had a lot of concern about homelessness when people were released from state psychiatric hospitals, and many of them ended up living on the streets because society didn't provide adequate housing and outreach programs for them.
I don't think it's a matter of "just accept people." We need to have some very vigorous services because some of these people have been in and out of our systems for a long time, and the services we currently have aren't meeting their needs.
I'm an advocate of community outreach programs and assertive community treatment. I think social workers and mental health professionals shouldn't do all of our jobs sitting behind our desks. I've been involved in trying to get some assertive community treatment programs implemented here with Prairie Center and the Champaign County Mental Health Center. There's a program now with a team from the TIMES Center homeless shelter that goes out into the community and does some assertive case management trying to help homeless people get the services they need and reintegrate into society, and I collaborated on the grant for that.
I'd certainly hope that we don't get to the point where we have to have policemen in our public libraries. They shouldn't have to be there to guard the doors. But if we had a really good community-based system, there would be a good connection with a community based mental health agency and the police. And in the event of a safety problem, when library staff members had concerns about the behavior or mental state of a patron, there would be crisis response teams and those kinds of support programs there to deal with it.