BCLA Perspectives

A Fine Balance at the Public Library

There is most likely not a front line librarian or branch manager in North America – and doubtless other countries as well – who has not struggled with maintaining the fine balance of offering a welcoming and safe space for everyone in the communities they serve.

And who has not had to address disruptive behaviours from people we have termed “socially excluded” – the homeless, the addicted, the mentally ill.   Or listen and respond to remarks by patrons who believe that “those people” have no right to use a public institution.

Like most urban libraries, Burnaby Public Library’s main branch, the Bob Prittie Metrotown Branch, is regularly visited by those living on Burnaby streets – to use our computers and public washrooms, enjoy a warm or cool place out of the weather, fill their water bottles at our water bottle filling station, read a newspaper or magazine, or use our one remaining pay phone.  And, for some, to sleep overnight around the library building.

In addressing that fine balance between being welcoming and accessible while also doing our best to ensure that patrons do not feel unsafe or disrespected while in the library, we count on the skills of our front line staff to act with compassion and to take action to address problematic behaviours. There are some behaviours that are obviously unacceptable – making racist or homophobic remarks, making threats against staff or other patrons, being in a state (under the influence of drugs or alcohol or in a perilous mental state) that does not allow a person to make rational or safe decisions and may be contributing to disruptive behaviours. Some are less obvious and it is there that we find ourselves most challenged as library professionals and purveyors of a public service.

A recent situation brought these challenges to the forefront for me. One of the consistent issues, not surprisingly in a region with some of the highest housing costs in the world, is the people who sleep around the outside of the main branch, using alcoves and overhangs to sleep as best they can out of the weather at night.

Until recently we have had only minor resolvable issues with a small group of regulars, most of whom we know by name. However, in the spring of 2016, tensions arose between these regulars and Parks maintenance workers, and I was approached by a relatively new tenant of the grounds. We’ll call him Tom (not his real name). His concern was that he slept around the library at night and made himself available for temporary construction jobs during the day. His problem was where to store his belongings while he was at work. When he stashed them in a plastic bag in the shrubbery, they were at risk of being removed by Parks staff, who take belongings to a central location for later pickup by their owners.  We worked with Tom and with local housing associations to try and come up with a solution, but could not find one that could safely and easily be rolled out without leaving the library responsible for someone else’s belongings. For those persons whose stashed few belongings were being thrown away, this was understandably upsetting.

The building tensions eventually erupted between Parks staff and Tom and a few of the regulars. After a few heated exchanges which threatened to make the grounds an unsafe workplace for maintenance staff, the regulars took their own retaliatory measures with various acts of vandalism including ripping up small shrubs and cutting irrigation lines.  At that point, the police were brought in and a young and earnest constable negotiated a truce. Ultimately the issue around stashed belongings was never fully resolved but the men knew that the shrubbery was not a safe and reliable place to store them.

Relative peace reigned for more than six months until the dire winter of 2016/17 descended on Metro Vancouver.  Tom set up an elaborate camp immediately outside of our main entrance and near a bike rack and two item returnslots .He would settle in at around 4 or 5 pm – well before our closing time of 9 pm. He defended his spot aggressively and occasionally threatened people using the item returns and the bike rack, and also got into conflict with other regulars who attempted to sleep in the area. Calm and respectful negotiations to get him to find a more convenient spot proved futile. Not surprisingly, ultimatums were even less successful.  Police recommended empathy given the weather.

As the weather improved, Tom finally left the main entrance and took up residence in an only slightly less inconvenient place – next to the outside door to our program room. Others joined him in this area over the course of the summer, and their presence grew – more people used the alcove, there were frequently people camped out all day, and the amount of garbage increased.

Summer 2017, Bob Prittie Metrotown Library (Courtesy of Burnaby Public Library)

We worked closely with Progressive Housing, the local agency that supports people who are homeless, who were attempting to find housing for Tom and other regulars.

The Chief Librarian and I were also in regular contact with the City’s Director of Public Safety, licensing staff, Parks foremen, and the RCMP’s Homeless Camp Coordinator. We attended meetings that included Progressive Housing and staff from various City departments to discuss responses to camps of homeless people around the City. Most frustrating about this ongoing situation was the reluctance of police and City staff to back up our desire to move Tom to another location. We were surprised to learn that, while we had the right to maintain a peaceful and respectful atmosphere within the library walls and to ask people to leave if they were disrupting that atmosphere, the police and City licensing staff did not believe that we had the same right around the outside perimeter of the building. No viable solutions were offered to our predicament.

During the warm summer of 2017, there was a considerable increase in people sleeping near the library and on grounds. Complaints from local residents, which in one case were referred to a local politician, spurred the police and licensing staff to form a task force to address the issue, and to revise their position on the library’s ability to address behaviours at the library perimeter. They visited the site regularly with Progressive Housing workers for a period of time and encouraged most of the campers to move on.

We now once again have our small number of regulars who we know by name and habit sleeping under a bit of shelter at the library. Tom has left and there have been no recent conflicts.

What lessons did we learn from these events? Chiefly, we learned that there will always be a fine balance between serving the highly diverse community and maintaining relative order and safety in our library buildings and grounds.

We also learned that someone with little power in society may attempt to assert themselvesin those rare instances where they are given some power over others – and Tom’s refusal to move may have been as much about this as it was about an ideal sleeping spot. I came across a recent quote that put words to my thoughts on this: “…there are two pervasive myths that contradict each other, and each cause a different type of damage. One myth is that homeless people are nothing like housed people. This “othering” of homeless individuals really allows us to view them as less than human, less than citizens and less than deserving of assistance. The related myth, though, is that homeless individuals are exactly like housed people. That simply isn’t true. A homeless individual has had a lot of different experiences that affects worldview, communication style, etc. If you assume that a homeless individual interacts with the world exactly like you do, then you are completely unable to empathize with the unique circumstances they face.” 1 – Ryan J. Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness (ALA, 2018).

And finally, we needed to find our own means of discouraging sleeping in areas that are not ideal for us or other users of the building. This was recommended after a CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) was done of the library perimeter.  We installed additional bike racks in the alcoves at our entrances – a decision that has unfortunately inconvenienced one of our long time regulars – a generally peaceful man who has slept around the library for years who commented recently, “I’m getting too old for this.”

Do I feel a sense of satisfaction about the end result of this situation? Relief yes, but my conscience still niggles at me. We defended the use of our public space so that it could be safely and comfortably used by a wide variety of local residents. In the process, we uprooted a number of people with no permanent or even temporary real shelter.

We continue to learn about how to address issues that may arise with homeless individuals respectfully and with empathy. At the same time, we are adding to the tools and tactics we have for discouraging disruptive behaviours. This can sometimes mean denying access (or a place to sleep) to the individuals that need us most.

The quest for the fine balance continues…

1 Retrieved January 26, 2018


>Deb Thomas is Deputy Chief Librarian and Branch Manager of the Bob Prittie Metrotown branch of Burnaby Public Library.