Checking Out the Homeless at Seattle’s Downtown Library
“As a resident writer, I’d been given a special code to unlock the door to the Writers’ Room,” writes Robert Andrew Powell in the November issue of Harper’s Magazine. “About twenty people had access, but not many other writers made use of it.” He discovers that one reason, despite the free WiFi in the Seattle Public Library aerie, is that it’s fairly noisy there.
You may not think you’d need extra soundproofing in a library, but you wouldn’t be taking into consideration the “tour guides on the Observation Deck,” or “fistfights echoing from somewhere down on the fifth floor.” A central portion of Powell’s article, in fact, has to do with the daily use of the public library by homeless and mentally ill people, despite the many protestations by Deborah Jacobs, the library chief who led the campaign to build the Koolhaas-designed library, that it was not, repeat not, going to become a de facto homeless shelter.
Excessive grooming is prohibited in the library’s rules of conduct, but every day I saw teeth brushing, clothes washing, hair washing, and even hair cutting. In a seventh-floor sink one Saturday I found a nest of curly black pubic hair.
In the elevators, he jostles for space with people carrying their worldly possessions in rolling luggage; at closing time, he watches as an elderly man secures a warm bed by faking a medical emergency that draws EMTs; when he asks a librarian how it’s going, she bursts into tears (she’d just been notified she’d be part-time). He notices that the $165-million library has dirty windows, and the staff is furloughed. (A levy passed this summer should help stem the bleeding.)
Despite the title “In the Writers’ Room,” Powell concludes that “ there’s not really any place in the library where a person can work undisturbed.” (I tend to agree.)
Summarizing his article so briefly risks giving the impression that Powell was in tweeds and clutching his teacup as he wrote, but he’s just back from Ciudad Juárez, where “ten people are murdered every day,” working on his book This Love Is Not For Cowards. At the library, security guards kept checking to make sure he wasn’t homeless himself. His chronicling of the ways in which the downtown public library is unsuited for its use as a refuge for those who need more help than is found in books is clear-eyed and non-judgmental.
This raises the question of what the City of Seattle has done lately to offer the homeless a semblance of home, or in the case of the mentally ill or addicted, a home and treatment. A downtown hygiene center was remodeled a few years ago and quickly reached capacity. You may recall that in the spring of 2011, the City Council put the brakes on Mayor McGinn’s rush to find someplace for tent-city occupants to live that didn’t require them to move every other month. In October last year, the City Council found their answer: letting churches host tent cities for longer.
Some on the Council do feel a sense of urgency; Nick Licata has said that the Council wants to have no family unsheltered by the end of 2012. That goal may require a real Christmas miracle.