Haley Flores grew up poring over history books at the Santa Ana Public Library while her little brothers built up their vocabulary there and read tales about alien attacks and outer space.
But a visit to the downtown library has become, on many days, a walk through a gantlet of misery: Homeless men and women sleep in the lawn while others plead with visitors for change.
Inside the building, signs warned people to avoid restrooms where some homeless use sinks and even toilet water to bathe themselves and wash their clothes. Some of Santa Ana’s down-and-out used the study carrels to look for jobs — others shot up drugs, their syringes found discarded in planters and even a box of toilet seat covers.
Security guards carry syringe disposal kits on their tool belts.
The library has been “a great place to hang out. You get something valuable,” said Haley, a 14-year-old high school freshman at USC College Prep. “Now, it’s just uncomfortable.”
The growing debate over homelessness in Orange County has found a crucible in a library that this year was named one of five winners of the 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to libraries and museums for community service.
Libraries around the country, including in downtown Los Angeles, have long been safe spaces for transients. But Orange County’s homeless population has been increasing sharply in recent years, and the Santa Ana civic center, where the library is located, is now home to an encampment of more than 400 people that the City Council earlier this month labeled “a public health crisis.”
The number of full-time security guards stationed inside and outside the 40,000-square-foot library was increased from two to four, and a “day porter” was hired to travel between the library and Santa Ana City Hall to clean heavily trafficked bathrooms.
Additional electrical outlets were installed by digging below the ground floor so patrons, including the homeless, could charge their phones.
Heather Folmar, library operations manager and a 25-year veteran of the main branch, called it a balancing act “that allows us to try and serve everyone — those with or without a home.”
But at recent council meetings, residents have complained that the number of homeless people at the facility is causing other patrons to stay away.
“It’s outrageous. The homeless are an epidemic in the city, and it’s preventing families from using our award-winning library,” said Peter Katz, a retired postal worker and 50-year resident of Santa Ana.
Libraries around the country have long been sanctuaries of knowledge for the youngest and the oldest, for the poorest to the most well-heeled — places to keep cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
This is no less true for the homeless, who have long benefited from the relative succor that libraries offer. Nationwide, at some libraries, officials distribute cards offering access to services including food banks and employment offices. Others provide bus passes and resumé classes, or even hire mental-health experts to help transients who show up, according to Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Assn.
“A library can be a haven. Public libraries have always tried to leverage their service with their sense of community,” Todaro said.
As she waited for her sixth-grade daughter to use materials to finish her homework in the children’s section, Mili Martinez said being in the library feels increasingly unsafe. She said she instructed her child “never to touch the toilet. No fingers. We flush with our feet.”
Some of the homeless people who spend time at the library, like Keith Cowan, 52, said they tried to stay out of the way. He has been living on the streets for 10 years. The former cement worker said he mostly goes into the building to use the restroom.
“I’ve tried my best not to be a bother. I’ve never talked to library customers,” he said. “The guards remind me to be conscious of my manners.”
Steven Sebreros, a trained mechanic in his 40s who grew up in Santa Ana, said people misunderstand many of the homeless, like himself.
“Like anyone else, we want stable work and to feel safe,” he said. “But we’re ignored. We suffer silently.”
Folmar, the librarian, said she and staff members started seeing a rise in the number of homeless people on the grounds of the library about a year ago. She said their presence generates both alarm and sympathy.
“One homeless woman told me, ‘We’re not animals,’ and I felt frustrated for her and for us. I felt such sadness for their plight,” Folmar said. “We’ve had people sitting on floors, lying on floors, charging phones. The study carrels were used for purposes other than study — and for things I can’t talk about.”
As worry increased over public health and safety for government workers, and for visitors doing business at the civic center, county officials launched staff training on blood-borne pathogens found in syringes and on diseases that are transmitted through bodily fluids.
The library has won praise for services that include health ambassadors who show patrons how to live a more active lifestyle, cooking classes, mentoring programs for different age groups, and football and basketball activities run by the young-adult department.
“At this library, it’s very disturbing to have all these wonderful things to offer people, especially young people, and to have them and their parents be afraid to come in,” Folmar said.
Some people have criticized a needle-exchange program that operates on Saturdays from noon to 3 p.m., saying it attracts homeless people to the civic center. Statistics show that since the opening in February, volunteers have logged 3,750 client visits and distributed 233,065 clean needles.
Kyle Barbour, one of the founders of the Orange County Needle Exchange Program, said those complaints are baseless. He said the homeless encampment has grown because of forces that allow it to.
“There’s the lack of shelters. Orange County does not have an adequate net or enough solutions to help this population,” he said. “No one’s going to come to the civic center seven days a week because of a program that they access for five minutes a week.”
This month, the Orange County Board of Supervisors chose Mercy House Living Centers Inc. to run a new 200-bed, year-round emergency shelter and multi-service center in Anaheim — expected to open in 2017 — to serve those without permanent housing. The county will also operate seasonal cold-weather shelters at National Guard armories in Fullerton and Santa Ana.
Santa Ana Councilman David Benavides said the homeless have been drawn to Santa Ana to be closer to healthcare agencies and social services.
“The civic center has a lot of public space and public transit is nearby. Everything is convenient,” he said. “I’m hoping that we’ve hit our peak in terms of the high numbers. Now, because there’s more attention on the crisis … I really think we can work with the county to make things better.”
Teenager Anthony Daniel, who has been homeless for six months, said he’s still learning what’s available to homeless youths in the area. He uses some of the library’s 23 computers to search for jobs at restaurants or in retail.
“I don’t go in there and talk to anybody,” he added. “I mind my own business.”
He said he’s drawn to the civic center “because it’s welcoming. There are really nice people if you get to know them.”
Haley Flores’ mother, however, isn’t taking any chances with her children spending time at the library. She has enrolled her daughter and 8- and 9-year-old sons in boxing classes.
“My mom really feels that we need to know self-defense,” said Haley, as she clutched a copy of “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.” “It’s kind of scary to be near shirtless people. I also worry if they drink, or maybe they can rob you.”