Written off

Chip Ward was, until recently, assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. A longer version of this article appears at Tomdispatch.com.

OPHELIA SITS BY THE FIREPLACE and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at no one in particular. She gazes out the window through the two pairs of glasses she wears at once. When her muttering disturbs the woman seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles and explains, "Don't mind me, I'm dead." Not at all reassured, the woman gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, she says.

Mick is having a bad day too. He has not misbehaved but sits and stares, glassy-eyed. This is usually the prelude to a seizure. His seizures are easier to deal with than Bob's, for instance, because he usually has them while seated and so, unlike Bob, he rarely hits his head and bleeds, nor does he ever soil his pants.

Franklin sits quietly by the fireplace and reads a magazine about celebrities. He is fastidiously dressed and might be mistaken for a businessman or a professional. His demeanor is confident and normal. If you watch him closely, though, you will see him slowly slip his hand into the pocket of his sport coat and furtively pull out a long, shiny carpenter's nail. With it, he carefully pokes out the eyes of the celebs in any photo.

These may sound like scenes from a psych ward. But in fact, this is the Salt Lake City Public Library, which, like virtually all the urban libraries in the nation, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city's homeless. It's also the place where I was, until recently, the assistant director.

In bad weather, most of the homeless have nowhere to go but public places. Local shelters push them out at 6 in the morning and, even when the weather is good, they are already lining up by the time the library opens at 9 because they want to sit down and recover from the chilly dawn or use the restrooms. Fast-food restaurants, hotel lobbies, office foyers and shopping malls do not tolerate them for long. Public libraries, on the other hand, are open and tolerant, even inviting and entertaining places for them to seek refuge from a world that will not abide their often disheveled and odorous presentation, their odd and sometimes obnoxious behaviors and the awkward challenges they present.

"Homeless" may not be a precise enough term for the people we see in the library. These are not the people for whom homelessness is a temporary, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The people we find in the library are those for whom homelessness is a way of life. We see them sleeping in parks, huddled over grates on sidewalks, resting on subway cars, passed out in doorways or panhandling with crude cardboard signs. Social workers refer to them as the chronically homeless, and studies of shelter users indicate that they make up 10% to 20% of the total homeless population.

The most salient characteristic of these people is that most of them are mentally ill. The data on how many homeless are estimated to be mentally ill vary widely, between 10% and 70% -- depending on whether all the homeless or just the chronically homeless are included and depending on how illness or disability are defined. How, for example, do you categorize alcoholics and drug addicts?

When Crash is sober, for instance, he reasons like you or me and converses normally. Unfortunately, he is rarely sober. In one of his better moments, he petitioned me to let him stay in the library even though he had recently been caught drinking -- an automatic six-month suspension. "C'mon, give me another chance," he pleaded.

Crash was sitting in his wheelchair in the foyer outside my office. It was always hard for me to address Crash without staring at the massive scar on his face -- a deep crease that divides it from his scalp to his chin. Unfortunately, his nose is also divided and the sides do not match up, giving him an asymmetrical appearance like a Picasso painting on wheels.

"Alcoholics pass out in the library's chairs," I explained. "If you piss your pants or puke, the custodians have to clean that up, and they hate that. You guys fall down and knock things over. You're unpredictable when you drink. You disrupt others. Public intoxication is against the law.... "

"OK, OK," he interrupted me, "I get it. Hey, just thought I'd try to get back in is all -- no hard feelings, man."

No hard feelings, I assured him. We shook hands. I wished I could cut him some slack, but I couldn't afford to establish a precedent I couldn't keep. The rule is clear: No drinking in the library, and no exceptions. As he waited for the elevator, I asked, "I know it's none of my business, but how did you get that scar?"

"Car accident," he replied. "Same one as put me in this wheelchair. That's why they call me Crash."

"Were you drinking?" I ask.

He shakes his head "yes" and sighs. "Drunk as a skunk ... drunk as a skunk."

THE STRONG odor of mouthwash on the breath of the transient alcoholics is often masked by the overwhelming odor of old sweat, urine-stained pants and the bad-dairy smell that unwashed bodies and clothes give off. It can take your breath away.

The library wrestles with where to draw the line on odor. The law is unclear. An aggressive patron in New Jersey successfully sued a public library for banning him because of his body odor, and that has had a chilling effect on public libraries ever since.

Library users frequently complain about the odor of transients, and librarians usually respond that there isn't much they can do about it. Lately, libraries are learning to write policies on odor that are more specific and so can be defended in court: The criteria for ejection must fit within a clear legal standard so that it won't be perceived by the court as a violation of the person's right to have access to the library.

Even so, such rules are hard to enforce because odor is such a subjective thing -- and humiliating someone by telling him he stinks is an awkward experience that librarians prefer to avoid. None of this was covered in library school.

So where are we to turn for help? Social workers are too few, underfunded, overworked and overwhelmed. In the dead of winter, they struggle to get people who are sleeping in alleys or passed out on sidewalks indoors so they don't freeze to death. If a homeless guy is inside the library, then the view is, "Hey, mission accomplished."

Local hospitals also are uncertain allies. They have little room for the indigent mentally ill and often can't get reimbursed for treating them. So they deal with the crisis at hand, fork over some pills and send them on their away.

Paramedics are caught in the middle. In winter, we call them almost every day. Once, when I apologized for calling twice in one day, one emergency worker responded: "Hey, no need to explain." He swept his arm toward the other paramedics, who surrounded a disoriented old man. "Look at us," he said. "We're the mobile homeless clinic. This is what we do. All day long, day after day."

The cost of this mad system is staggering. Cities that have tracked chronically homeless people estimate that a typical transient can cost taxpayers $20,000 to $150,000 a year. You could not design a more expensive, wasteful or ineffective way of providing healthcare to individuals who live on the street than by having librarians dispense it through paramedics and emergency rooms.

Ultimately, the indigent mentally ill are criminalized, and we librarians are complicit. When we have no good choices, in the end, we just call the cops. Take, for example, the case of a young man who entered the library spouting racial and ethnic slurs. He loudly asked some Latino teenagers doing their homework when they had crossed the border, and they reported his rude behavior.

When a security guard approached, the young man started yelling obscenities and then took a swing at him. The guard tried to calm him, but on the next lunge, the guard took him down, cuffed his hands behind his back and called the police. They recognized the man. He had been let out of jail just two days earlier.

That man's behavior, of course, was not a measure of his character but of his psychosis. He was sick, not bad. If we accept that schizophrenia, for instance, is not the result of a character flaw or personal failing but of some chemical imbalance in the brain -- an imbalance that can strike a person regardless of his or her values, beliefs, upbringing, social standing or intent, just like any other disease might strike one -- then why do we apply to that mental illness a kind of moral judgment we wouldn't use in other medical situations? We do not, for example, jail a diabetic who is acting drunk because his body chemistry has become so unbalanced that he is going into insulin shock.

BY WINTER'S end -- our "homeless season" -- those of us at the library often find ourselves hard put to cope with our own feelings of depression and frustration. As one library manager told me, "I struggle not to internalize what I experience here, but there are days I just go home and burst out in tears." She is considering leaving the profession.

America is proud of its hyper-individualism. We glorify the accomplishments of inventors, entrepreneurs, pioneers and artists. Although some individuals thrive, the plight of the chronically homeless tells me that our communities are also fragmented and disintegrating.

The Penan nomads of Sarawak, members of an indigenous and primal culture in Borneo, have no technology or material comforts that compare with our mighty achievements. But they have six words for "we." Sharing is an obligation and is expected. An American child is taught that homelessness is regrettable but inevitable because some people are bound to fail. A child of the Penan is taught that a poor man shames us all.

Ophelia is not so far off after all -- in a sense she is dead and has been so for some time. She is neglected, avoided, ignored, denied, overlooked, feared, detested, pitied and dismissed. She waits in the library, day after day, gazing at us through her multiple lenses and mumbling to her invisible friends.

She is our shame. We pay lip service to her tragedy -- then look away fast. As a library administrator, I hear the public express annoyance more often than not: "What are they doing in here?" "Can't you control them?" We hear you loud and clear, we answer. Please be patient; we are doing the best we can. Are you?

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