Homeless in Paradise
This article was posted to Michael's blog, LibraryDust, on June 16, 2005.
A few short blocks from where I live stands a large building familiar to anybody who watches television on New Year’s Day. The Rose Bowl rests in the Arroyo Seco, waiting for football season and the crowds that come to see the games. If you have never been in that stadium, its proportions are impressive, whether the place is empty or occupied. The Rose Bowl is about seven hundred feet wide from rim to rim, and that’s on the narrower side.
When the stadium is full and something interesting happens—say a touchdown by the home team—you can hear the roar miles away. That’s the sort of noise that 90,000 people can make when they all speak up at once. The Rose Bowl holds that many people. Keep that figure in mind for a moment while I shift the subject.
On three chilly nights last January the government performed a census count and discovered about 90,000 homeless people living in Los Angeles County. L.A. easily beat out its urban rivals for the title of Homeless Capital of the Nation; New York has only about 40,000 homeless souls, not even enough to fill Yankee Stadium.
[The reason for these high numbers of homeless people is the same as why the Rose Bowl is in Pasadena rather than Illinois: Weather. Los Angeles County is less likely to freeze you to death than, say, Chicago. Especially when your bedroom is an alley and your blanket is the sports page. But homelessness is a rough existence anywhere: the mortality rate for homeless men is about 3.5 times that for others; the mean age at death is approximately 45 years.]
But then, you might be saying to yourself, what is 90,000 homeless people in a population of ten million? Well, let’s put it this way: there are about 22 homeless people per square mile in the County. That means that you can’t walk, drive or take the bus any distance at all without encountering them. Back when they were called bums, they congregated along the railroad tracks or the seedy part of downtown: these days there isn’t any place where they aren’t.
In the olden days most of them would migrate to the public parks or the library during daylight hours. That’s one tradition that hasn’t changed. There are about a couple of hundred public libraries in the county to wait out the day in, and I would venture to say that not a one of them is without its own homeless cohort. The homeless need a lot of things; what we give them, without hesitation and with the generosity of an enlightened civilization, is a good set of magazines and a comfortable place to read them.
What they give us in return is a dose of the problems that lead to their having that incredibly high death rate and short life span. Everybody brings something to the library: the homeless offer drug addiction, violence, mental illness and disease out of proportion to their numbers. They are a high-maintenance subgroup which also tends to drive away others—both patrons and, over time, library staff.
Somehow we have come to accept that the public library will function as a warehouse for people with problems so severe that they result in their being unable to maintain permanent residence. Nobody ever wrote that into the mission statement; it is just the way things went, unfortunately—unfortunately for the libraries, and their patrons, homeless and otherwise.
The wonder of our society is that unintended consequences of this sort can become permanent features of the landscape. Nobody wants the homeless, and we don’t do very well either in preventing the problem or treating it, though we do maintain some really excellent tax-supported facilities for those 90,000 souls to hang out in. In fact, you are probably more likely to encounter a heroin addict or a schizophrenic in the reference stacks than you would in the grocery store. That is what passes for resource allocation in modern society.
None of this comes as a surprise to anybody connected with the public library. The institution has become accustomed to having this particular problem (a sort of unfunded mandate) dropped in its lap. Nor am I particularly surprised, having been a resident of this county for most of my life, and a library patron as well.
What never ceases to amaze me is that the libraries do so very little for this group of their patrons. Like them or loathe them, the homeless are there in their thousands, and they aren’t going away. Either as a problem or as a user group they are ours for the foreseeable future. If I could work any change in the library systems of this county, it would be to create departments of homeless services; the County and City of Los Angeles Systems have the money and the organizational skills to do this, but they have not. There is no upper-level manager assigned specifically to deal with this, either as a problem or an opportunity. In any government agency, what that means is that there is nobody to call, no one responsible, no conduit for information; maybe they want it that way, maybe not: in any event, that is the way it stands.
What the two major library systems of this county need is a liaison to the homeless community, somebody to act on this problem, address its symptoms, communicate with the public and other agencies—in other words, to take action specifically for, with and about the homeless.
And that is what I am asking: as a patron of these libraries and a lover of both, as a person who thinks the needs and the problems presented by the homeless are significant enough to merit focus and attention, both for the sake of the homeless and for the rest of us as well. To Margaret Donnellan Todd of the County Library, and to Fontayne Holmes of the City system I pose the question: Why not? Or perhaps a better question for all of us to ponder: if not now, when?
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