What happens when a library becomes a refuge for the homeless

An Ottawa branch is no longer opening its lobby early to provide additional shelter — and that’s raising bigger questions about how libraries serve and support vulnerable patrons
By David Rockne Corrigan - Published on Mar 10, 2020
For many years, the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch on Metcalfe Street opened its lobby doors on weekdays as early as 6 a.m., four hours before the rest of the library. (David Rockne Corrigan)

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OTTAWA — On a chilly February morning, people scurry in and out of the lobby of the Ottawa Public Library’s main branch on Metcalfe Street while a man sleeps on a wooden bench, his face covered by the hood of his parka.

For many years, the lobby doors opened on weekdays as early as 6 a.m., four hours before the rest of the library, allowing some of the city’s most vulnerable a few extra hours of shelter. But in November — following incidents of fighting, drug use, and property damage — that open-door policy changed. People experiencing homelessness can still use the library during the day, but now they must wait until library workers and security arrive to open the doors at 9:30 a.m.

The change does not sit well with Somerset Ward councillor Catherine McKenney. “This place used to be full in the mornings,” says McKenney. “They said they’re experiencing a lot of violence, fights, urination, drug use. Well, if that’s the case, I’d rather you didn’t punish everyone, so I told [library staff], ‘This is wrong.’”

The councillor has filed a formal inquiry with the library board, hoping to get answers on how the decision was made. Library staff say that, since the building was sold in 2018 — in part to help finance the construction of a new central branch near LeBreton Flats — OPL has become a tenant and that the new landlord holds it responsible for lobby security. Before November, the lobby was unmonitored during those early morning hours, and OPL would address security issues on a case-by-case basis. (Library staff indicated last fall that the cost of hiring additional security for those times would be roughly $90,000 per year.)

The controversy highlights the changing role of libraries and the services that they provide: with few other options, people experiencing homelessness across North America have increasingly turned to libraries as a source of shelter, compassion, and assistance.

“Libraries have changed in the last few decades. They are no longer quiet repositories of books,” Ryan Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone, writes in an email to TVO.org. “Now they are raucous community centers where books are often tangential to the primary purpose of being a hub of programs, meetings and more. Consequently, library staff are tasked with dealing with the full gamut of humanity. Every issue that people can face (homelessness, mental health issues, addiction, domestic violence, etc.) gets manifested in the library.” 

McKenney, who backed a successful council motion in January declaring a housing and homelessness emergency in the city, says that the lack of affordable housing is to blame for the fact that people are increasingly relying on Ottawa’s public spaces to take refuge from the cold.

As a result of OPL’s new rule, McKenney says, about a dozen people, each of whom had depended on having those “critical hours” of shelter each day, have to look for new options. The library did work with some to arrange for alternatives, though McKenney questions how practical those alternatives are. St. Luke’s Table mission, for example, which is about a 20-minute walk from the library, does not open until 8:15 a.m. — more than an hour after most people leave the city’s shelters.

Under the Plaza Bridge, six blocks north of the OPL’s main branch, 47-year-old Chris Grus, who used to be a lobby regular, says he doesn’t understand why the library would keep people out in the cold. “I used to eat breakfast at the mission, and if it was open, I would saunter on over there because it’s somewhere warm,” he says. He still visits the library during its regular hours, as do others who spend their time downtown. “The Rideau Centre [mall] is okay for a while, but you can stay at the library for hours,” says Grus, explaining that, unlike at the mall, he doesn’t get hassled by security at the library.

Dowd, the executive director of a homeless shelter near Chicago, travels the continent educating libraries, schools, and police departments about how to “work compassionately with challenging homeless individuals.” He offers an online course for librarians on his website — the Ottawa library plans to make it mandatory for some of its downtown staff this year.

“This training is really about how to work with people who are in more vulnerable situations, especially with mental health,” says Catherine Seaman, division manager of customer experience for OPL. She herself has taken the course: “For me, it really changed the way I should be talking, the way I should be standing, the way I should be using my arms — that whole piece of how to be more welcoming, how to be more open and less judgmental.”

One of Dowd’s strategies involves how to approach homeless patrons who are asleep. He suggests that, instead of touching them, library workers use their voices, and emphasizes that being homeless is exhausting: “Imagine if you had to sleep in a room with 100 people, walk 10 miles per day, and eat sporadically. How tired would you be?” He recommends that libraries introduce “no-snoring” policies rather than banning sleeping outright. If someone is asleep in the library and not bothering anyone, he says, “staff energy” may be better spent dealing with other issues.

OPL is not the only Ontario library system trying to navigate a changing set of demands. Some are taking a more punitive approach: last week, for example, the Windsor Public Library faced criticism for its updated customer code of conduct, which includes a provision stating that patrons may be fined (or face criminal prosecution) for “emitting offensive odour” or bringing more than three bags into the library. Advocates say the rule changes discriminate against those experiencing homelessness. (The Kingston Public Library backed down from similar changes to its code of conduct in 2016.)

Others are responding by expanding their capacity: in 2018, Kitchener Public Library hired two community-outreach workers to develop programs and services for library users experiencing homelessness, mental illness, and addiction. That same year, Toronto Public Library hired its first full-time social worker, Rahma Hashi.

Since being hired, Hashi has worked with other library staff to determine how vulnerable people access the library, what barriers and gaps exist, and how the library can better connect people with social services. She hopes to see this trend grow. “The library is a great place for social change,” says Hashi. “It’s a community hub. It’s actually one of the best places to start the conversation about inclusion. So we’re thinking about it as a place where you can borrow a book, yes, but you should also be able to access the different services within the city.”

Hashi says that TPL’s “system approach” is just one of many — and cites Kitchener and the Edmonton Public Library, which has also hired social workers to address the growing number of people seeking refuge at their downtown branch. Started in 2011, EPL’s outreach-services program has since expanded twice. It was awarded an American Library Association Presidential Citation in 2015, and library staff have given presentations around the world on the program.

In Ottawa, McKenney wants to see the city adopt a more progressive approach to accommodating vulnerable patrons. McKenney says that library staff are often called on to do work beyond their job requirements and that the issue is not with them, but with the city’s strategy: “I know that, in this building, the number of people coming in experiencing homelessness has been growing, as it has been in libraries across the country. We haven’t taken that extra step that other libraries have.”

This is one in a series of stories about issues affecting eastern Ontario. It's brought to you with the assistance of Queen’s University.

Ontario Hubs are made possible by the Barry and Laurie Green Family Charitable Trust & Goldie Feldman.

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