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Homelessness Strains New York’s Libraries

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Homelessness Strains New York’s Libraries

10 Blocks podcast July 3, 2019
New York
The Social Order

Stephen Eide joins City Journal editor Brian Anderson to discuss how homeless services are putting pressure on one of New York City’s most valued cultural institutions: the New York Public Library. Eide describes the situation in “Disorder in the Stacks,” his story in the Spring 2019 Issue of City Journal.

Homelessness has been a challenge for every New York City mayor since the 1970s. Prior to the city’s revitalization, the homeless were mostly concentrated in destitute neighborhoods of Manhattan. But today, homeless single adults are an increasingly visible presence in parks, subway stations, and libraries around the city.

“All urban library systems have found themselves in the homeless-services business, with varying degrees of enthusiasm,” Eide writes. The New York Public Library spends $12 million annually on security, including training for staff in dealing with potentially threatening patrons. The city needs a comprehensive strategy for dealing with a worsening crisis.

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Coming up on the show today, one of our contributing editors, Stephen Eide, joins me to discuss his recent essay for the magazine "Disorder in the Stacks," which looks at homelessness and the problems it's posing for New York's public libraries. Homelessness has been a challenge for every mayor in New York since the 70s, but today we'll talk about how the city's struggle to deal with it is creating new problems for one of our most valued institutions, the New York Public Library. Stephen's been a guest on the show before and I know you'll enjoy the discussion. Our conversation will begin after this.

Hello again everyone. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining us now in the studio is Stephen Eide. Stephen is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a contributing editor at City Journal. His recent essay for the magazine "Disorder in the Stacks" details how services for the homeless are putting a strain on library resources throughout the city. Stephen, thanks for joining us.

Stephen Eide: Hi Brian. Thanks for having me.

Brian Anderson: Homelessness, as we mentioned at the beginning, has been a challenge for every mayor in New York, really since the 70s. But for this piece, you spend a lot of time visiting different branches of the New York Public Library. What you found was a significant number of homeless people sitting in the library rooms charging their phones, streaming Netflix, browsing social media, playing video games. It seems that the public libraries in Midtown Manhattan are morphing into an extension of the city's homeless shelter system. Why is this happening, in your view, and what has been the reaction of library patrons to this?

Stephen Eide: Well, this burden is falling on the public library system because it's falling on many service systems in this city. In terms of the core homeless services system, meaning mostly the network of emergency shelters, New York City already spends $3 billion. But that sum doesn't take into account the burden homelessness places on the cops, on the school system to deal with problems related to homeless children, and also the library is another service system that gets roped into this task. It certainly has a financial burden in terms of spending on security and staffing on hours, but it also has implications for just the library's sense of purpose, it's mission. What does the library do? There's a lot of debate about that, but when you visit many of these branches— and I visited around 50 branches for this article, several of them more than once— what it seems that a library does in many cases, is function as a daytime homeless shelter.

Brian Anderson: Some of the numbers from your piece are quite eye-opening— you just mention the security cost; the public library's now spending I think $12 million annually, you say in the essay, which is a number not all that far from the amount it spends on books and other resources. How exactly are those security costs being spent, and what kind of security do you need for a public library full of homeless people?

Stephen Eide: Well, it's a delicate issue for the library to talk about. The library needs to go hat in hand to the city council every year for its budget request. It doesn't want to dramatize, it believes, the problem of homelessness, but it's clearly internally a big issue. They have to debate where they put these security guards. There aren't security guards at every branch in the system, but the branches where you see a large concentration of security guards are not, coincidentally, these branches that have a very large number of homeless people. Places like the Bronx Library Center, the SIBL— Science Industry and Business Library— in Midtown Manhattan, these are places where you might have, on a cold day, a few dozen homeless people sitting there all day long. And there you're going to have a significant concentration of security guards just so that any non-homeless person who happens to be using that branch for any reason is going to feel comfortable. Of course the larger point to make there is that you won't see that many non-homeless people using libraries if you have large concentrations of homeless people. If you go out to suburban library systems or quasi-suburban branches in the NPL system, like on Staten Island, which I did, or the northern Bronx, you see older retirees or young professionals— certain types of cohorts that you just don't see so much in these Midtown branches and elsewhere, which have a high concentration of homeless people. We've talked about this many times in terms of how you manage public spaces, be it streets or parks. You try to maximize the number of ordinary people going about their daily business and try to minimize the people who are contributing to concerns about disorder. And at this point, the balance is clearly more toward the homeless side of the ledger than the non-homeless side of ledger at many, many branches in New York City.

Brian Anderson: So it is having an effect on the patrons? They're not showing up to the degree they would have been absent this problem?

Stephen Eide: Yeah. People don't feel comfortable settling in for a couple hours. Around Midtown Manhattan, it's not like you have an overabundance of quiet, pleasant places to just go sit for a couple of hours. The library could be serving that function, but a lot of people don't feel comfortable just sitting, opening up their laptop, or opening up a book and spending a few hours in a place where they're surrounded by a bunch of people who are clearly homeless and they don't know— maybe they're behaving erratically.

Brian Anderson: They're not going to feel safe bringing kids there.

Stephen Eide: Yeah. There are children's sections, but they delineate those boundaries very clearly between the children's and the adults' sections at all these branches, but it's especially rare to see, relatively speaking, non-homeless adults using the library for the purpose that we would think we have libraries for. The New York Public Library's favorite word is inclusiveness, inclusivity. This is an institution that serves all New Yorkers— that's its commitment, as it says over and over again. But it's not inclusive in a de facto way because you don't see all New Yorkers at public library branches; in many of them, you only see certain kinds of New Yorkers.

Brian Anderson: You mention disorder, and certainly the presence of a large number of homeless people in a branch is a sign of disorder. Has there been any kind of uptick in crime or property damage?

Stephen Eide: The library does keep security incident data. They're higher than I would say they should be, in terms of the number of emotionally disturbed persons, security incidents. They were only able to give me four years of data. I wanted to be very cautious in how I interpreted that rather than to say that we're seeing a big increase, but just in terms of the way that library officials talk about this on and off the record, clearly they're concerned that this is a rising problem for them. They're open about that. If a homeless person attacks somebody, then that homeless person is going to be promptly taken out of the facility and dealt with, and committed to a psychiatric hospital or jail. But people can create an uncomfortable environment without being floridly psychotic, and that's, I think, the more typical case you'll find in many of these library facilities.

Brian Anderson: Now, you raise a number of legal issues in the essay. Libraries are in many ways a public space— they certainly advertise themselves as such, as you've just indicated— but courts have traditionally given leeway to libraries, just as they have in public spaces, with regulating disorderly behavior. So how does that work in practice? Can library security remove a homeless person from a library? Can it regulate this in any way?

Stephen Eide: Yeah, panhandling is prohibited, very bad B.O. is prohibited— that has been held up in court, not in cases related to New York, but outside of New York, in New Jersey. There is an understanding that a library has a more specific sense of purpose than a street or a sidewalk, and in order to fulfill that sense of purpose, it needs to have more stringent regulations on behavior. Courts have held that up. Cities have a lot of difficulty regulating the behavior of homeless people outside of transit systems, outside of libraries, but within certain types of systems you can do more to regulate behavior. But there's still important limits in terms of whether or not you can remove somebody who's not assaulting anybody.

Brian Anderson: Has there been any kind of advocacy at work in this area of pushing for the rights of homeless people to occupy these spaces?

Stephen Eide: Well, I did look at a few systems outside of New York City, and I think in any progressive jurisdiction there are going to be legal advocates who want to push things as far as they can in terms of using the courts. The larger question for me is, what are the library systems themselves doing? Because library systems themselves— because they want to be seen as progressive, because they want to be seen as doing the right thing relative to the city politicians who control the budget strings— are in some ways embracing the role of homeless service provider. Every major urban public library system, this is the role that they find themselves in, but it's a question of whether you leap to it or you do it with great reluctance. I would say the San Francisco Public Library System not only goes further than other library systems in terms of what it offers for homeless patrons. You see article upon article about the San Francisco Public Library System's creative ideas about homeless services. New York Public Library is really more in the reluctant camp, at the moment. Its service offerings are quite modest and, according to what the library officials said, that's where they're likely to remain. They don't want to go in the San Francisco route, at least for now.

Brian Anderson: In San Francisco— and we had Erica Sandberg on last week, who's situated out there in that city, talking about the broader problem of public order breakdown— but as you argue in your piece, San Francisco has probably gone the furthest in this idea of transforming the library system's mission into becoming a homeless services provider. Is that a fair thing to say?

Stephen Eide: Yes, absolutely. They have social workers, they have peers— that is former homeless and people dealing with mental illness challenges who do outreach work to other homeless patrons— they establish partnerships with organizations that come around and bring shower services and things to the library system. And again, they really do a lot to promote these efforts. Obviously they're very proud of it. So there is a difference in the way you engage in the spirit of the thing between San Francisco and other public library systems, and New York, at the moment, is in the middle, I would say.

Brian Anderson: Now, this is a broader question just about homelessness in general in New York City. I imagine easing the situation for the libraries would entail improving the homeless crisis situation more broadly, right? In the city, and in your view, what do we need to do to get closer to that?

Stephen Eide: Well, yes. There are going to have to be legal changes, policy changes. If you break out the mental health component of it— somewhere between a quarter and a third of homeless people usually are estimated to have a serious mental illness— we need to talk about inpatient psychiatric care for some of those people, improved outpatient psychiatric care, better focus of resources on that population as opposed to other people who claim to have mental disorders. Homelessness certainly is a housing problem. The serious lack of low rent housing is an enormous problem in San Francisco and New York City; we dug ourselves a very deep hole in that respect. But in terms of the legal challenges, these cities— San Francisco and New York— you can't say that they're not doing anything, that they're not responding. They're spending tons and tons of resources on these homeless challenges. That should give them more legal flexibility to do more in terms of quality of life ordinances than they are at the moment. There's a legal question in terms of what courts will let you do; there's also a political question in terms of how far you want to push the limits in terms of what you want to do, and I don't think that politicians in New York and San Francisco are going that far at the moment to see how far they can go in terms of quality of life ordinances.

Brian Anderson: You've written for the magazine about the library system before. You have a great affection for it, right?

Stephen Eide: Yeah, for me, the public library in New York or in any community— in affluent suburbs, in rust belt cities, in California— it's a cultural institution. It's a public good. We support libraries because we want to make it easier for people, for strivers, for people who have a penchant for self-education, who view their public education as incomplete, who want to continue to pursue intellectual endeavors on their own. This was Andrew Carnegie's vision back when he bankrolled over a thousand libraries across the nation. And I still think that that vision has a lot to say for itself. And l think all of us like the idea of public libraries— we are not shutting down libraries; we believe libraries are valid public goods. But if a library is really more in the social services business than the cultural institution business, then that raises a lot of questions of whether or not the library knows anything about what it's doing in the social services business. Do we need social service providers? Sure. We need people to be connecting people with treatment for their serious mental illness, to be helping them get back on their feet in terms of employment, and there are many social service providers who do a decent job with those tasks. But in all this literature about all these great, innovative things that libraries are supposedly doing to help the homeless, I've never seen any serious reckoning in terms of how you evaluate whether or not libraries are any good at helping us reduce the amount of homelessness or improve our policy response to homelessness. Yes, they're doing something vis-à-vis homelessness. Are they any good at homeless services? I have a lot of doubts about that.

Brian Anderson: For a deeper look into how homelessness is affecting the New York Public Library system, read Stephen Eide's essay "Disorder in the Stacks." It's in City Journal, it's on our website. You can find City Journal on Twitter, @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_mi. If you've enjoyed today's show, please be sure to rate us on iTunes. Thanks for listening and thank you for joining us, Stephen.

Stephen Eide: Thanks for having me.

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