Too at Home in the Stacks

It's a core value of public libraries that their doors are open to everyone. But patience is running thin with one group: the homeless. With nowhere else to go, society's down-and-out flock to libraries for clean restrooms, comfortable chairs and a safe haven. More than 100 homeless people a day hang out in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library in Washington, D.C., while librarians in Las Vegas, Detroit and Portland, Ore., estimate similar crowds. According to Loriene Roy, president of the American Library Association, it's a matter of principle versus reality—"the philosophy of serving all people," she says, "and the reality of what happens when we do." Given the prevalence of addiction and mental illness among the homeless, what happens can be unsettling: drug use in the stacks, masturbating at the computers, fouling the grounds. The strain on staff, and other visitors, has become so acute that city library leaders will meet during a conference this week in Minneapolis to discuss new approaches, says Pamela Stovall, associate director of D.C.'s MLK library.

Some libraries, including Portland's downtown branch, have already instituted an exclusion system to penalize bad behavior: one day for shaving in the bathroom, three years for fighting. But the Philadelphia Free Library, in partnership with Project H.O.M.E., a local nonprofit, has a more enterprising program. It pays homeless patrons to monitor the restrooms, and it plans to employ them at a new café. Participation in the program, like the library, is open to all.