The New York Public Library’s Science, Industry and Business Library sits at the corner of Madison Avenue and 34th Street, in the former B. Altman department-store building. Every morning before 10 AM, when “SIBL” opens, a small crowd of men gathers outside the door, many carrying their personal items in plastic bags and wearing dirty and mismatched clothes. Some may have slept the night before at the Bellevue men’s shelter on 30th Street, a 15-minute walk away. By late afternoon, on cold days, the number of homeless patrons at SIBL can swell to more than 40; their presence is especially dominant in the lower-level reading room. SIBL, which the NYPL plans to close as part of a broad reorganization of its midtown facilities, opened in 1996 and was touted as “a prototype library for the twenty-first century.” That has turned out to be the case, but not in the way that the NYPL intended. SIBL’s de facto function as a daytime homeless shelter is shared by many public libraries in New York and across the nation. The homeless set up shop in NYPL branches to charge their cell phones, watch Netflix and YouTube, play video games, stay warm, sleep (though that’s technically against library regulations), use the bathroom, and generally while away the time.
Single-adult homelessness in New York has risen sharply under Mayor Bill de Blasio and won’t decline anytime soon. City government allocates about $3 billion annually for homeless services, the spending mostly related to operating emergency-shelter programs. But that sum, as extraordinary as it is, doesn’t reflect the pressures that homelessness places on other service systems in New York—the NYPL among them.
The occupation of public spaces such as the library by homeless people, many suffering from untreated mental illness and other behavioral health disorders, is a distinctive affliction of the modern city. Before the 1980s, New York’s “bums” and “derelicts” were concentrated mainly in the Bowery, a skid-row neighborhood. As housing regulations, redevelopment incentives, and other factors caused the number of “single-room occupancy” units to dwindle, the Bowery crowd dispersed citywide, and destitute single adults became an increasingly visible presence in parks, subway and train stations, and libraries.
Homelessness has been a challenge for every New York mayor since Ed Koch. Throughout the city’s renaissance years, the crime rate and other measures of urban health have returned to levels from much earlier times. But no mayoral administration has been able to turn back the clock fully on homelessness (see chart below), and the problem is now worse than ever. Beginning in Michael Bloomberg’s third term and throughout the de Blasio era, the city has been experiencing a rise in single-adult homelessness not seen since the 1980s. The de Blasio administration has more than doubled the spending on homeless services and has launched a host of new initiatives. Still, New Yorkers should expect single-adult-homelessness to keep rising for the next few years.
New York City established an official Department of Homeless Services in 1993 to bring order to what had been a patchwork network of emergency-shelter programs. As the city has continued to struggle with homelessness, other agencies have found themselves bearing some of the burden. Studies done by the Independent Budget Office have found that schoolchildren living in shelters get suspended at twice the rate of children living in permanent housing; only one out of ten homeless kids meets proficiency standards in English and math. Roughly half the city’s unsheltered homeless population lives in the subway system, where the MTA spends $3 million annually on outreach efforts. Some fear that homeless-related disorder is contributing to the current decline in ridership. When the topic of homelessness came up during an October 2018 MTA board meeting, NYC Transit president Andy Byford said that he had recently directed station managers to “bear down” on “antisocial” behavior in the subways. Dealing with the homeless is a major police preoccupation, too, driving up calls for service and necessitating special training in de-escalation techniques. (See “CIT and Its Limits,” Summer 2017.)
And homeless-related pressures on the NYPL are growing, too. In Frederick Wiseman’s 2017 documentary Ex Libris: The New York Public Library, NYPL president Anthony Marx begins a senior staff discussion on the topic of “homeless patrons” by stating: “Everyone recognizes the problem seems to be increasing.” The library spends $12 million annually on security, a sum close to what it budgets for books and other materials ($16 million). Not every branch uses security personnel; their presence is determined by various considerations, such as the size of the facility and (in the case of the research libraries) the value of some of the objects in the collections. But the NYPL’s security budget would surely be much lower if not for homelessness. All things being equal, a midtown Manhattan facility with a high concentration of homeless will need more security staff than a branch in the northern Bronx or Staten Island with virtually no homeless. The library has also provided de-escalation training, bringing in a group known as the Crisis Prevention Institute to train public-facing staff in how to manage conflict and deal with potentially threatening situations.
The library operates two programs that attempt to connect the homeless with social services. The first is Coffee and Connections, which brings together community organizations and city agencies, such as HRA and ThriveNYC, in an informal setting to speak with “persons without homes” or anyone else who shows up. (In one session I witnessed, the attendees seemed to be almost entirely Bengali immigrants.)
The second initiative is a partnership with New York University’s Silver School of Social Work that places graduate students in three branch libraries in order to refer patrons to benefits programs and homeless-services providers. The library has operated outreach programs to homeless families in shelters since the 1980s; in 2018, library staff worked with 20 family shelters, conducting story hours and early-literacy programs.
The library also runs programs that, while not geared specifically to the homeless, are justified at least in part by their ability to reach them. Single Stop, based out of the Grand Central branch in midtown, has two full-time staffers who help patrons fill out applications for government benefits and refer them to other social services. The library does not keep records of how many homeless patrons it serves on a systemwide or branch-level basis; but according to an NYPL spokesperson, in fiscal year 2018, 6,229 individuals participated in “programs that targeted people who are either homeless or at risk of homelessness.”
The largest draws for the homeless are the free services available to all—public bathrooms, computers, and heat and air conditioning; and proximity to a major homeless-services provider. NYPL branches with consistently significant concentrations of homeless include 125th Street (a short M35 bus ride away from Ward’s Island, where shelters and behavioral health facilities total more than 1,000 beds), St. George’s Library Center (next door to a shelter run by Project Hospitality), the Bronx Library Center (walking distance from at least six homeless-services providers), and SIBL. Though the city’s Department of Homeless Services does not require shelter clients to clear out of the facility every morning, it’s standard for providers to shut down their dormitory facilities during daytime hours. Some homeless patrons, of course, come in directly from the streets. In a January 2016 feature, the New York Daily News profiled the daily routine of a 43-year-old homeless man, which consisted of nights spent on the streets or in the subway system and up to 15 hours of daytime in the Mid-Manhattan library, mostly watching Netflix on his smartphone.
The NYPL not only serves and accommodates the homeless; it also regulates their behavior. The library’s General Rules and Regulations, displayed prominently in many locations, ban sleeping, panhandling, and “making unreasonable use of the restrooms, including laundering clothes and bathing,” and mandate that patrons’ body odor “must not be so offensive that it disturbs others.” The homeless are not allowed to bring in carts or other large bags with their personal possessions. When asked about the legal basis for the NYPL’s rules and regulations, a spokesperson explained that the library “strives to maintain an accessible space for all visitors to enjoy reading, learning and other activities. In furtherance of this goal, the Library applies reasonable and fair rules of conduct that focus on limiting activities that have the potential to disrupt the Library’s normal operations in keeping with the regulations of the University of the State of New York, State Education Department under which it is chartered.”
Public agencies have more leeway to regulate behavior in libraries than in parks and streets or on sidewalks. Libraries are a “limited public forum,” as the United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit explained in Kreimer v. Bureau of Police for Morristown, a 1992 ruling. On the one hand, the First Amendment protects patrons’ right of access to information, which entails “some level of access to a public library, the quintessential locus of the receipt of information.” On the other, that right can be restricted to support a library’s purpose, which is more limited than that of a park. And to fulfill that sense of purpose may require regulations on body odor (the issue at stake in Kreimer, which was resolved in favor of the Morristown, New Jersey, public library), prohibitions on panhandling, and other restrictions on behavior that couldn’t be constitutionally upheld in the case of “traditional public forums” such as parks, streets, and sidewalks.
The NYPL provided four years of systemwide security-incident data for this article (see chart below). Total incidents are up since 2015, driven by increased episodes involving “disorderly persons.” However, incidents involving the category that, according to the library, is most closely connected with the homeless—“emotionally disturbed persons”—have declined over the last two years.
The connection between crime and homelessness is complicated. Over the last decade, single-adult homelessness in New York has risen about 130 percent, while murders have dropped 37 percent and total crime is down 10 percent. On the spectrum of functionality among the city’s homeless population, homeless library patrons could be placed in the middle. Most aren’t actively pursuing work. While it’s not impossible to observe a homeless-looking man using a library computer to search for jobs, the casual visitor to a branch will note a preponderance of computer screens showing YouTube, video games, Facebook, and other programs not normally connected with advancing out of poverty. (On one occasion, I saw someone looking at pornographic images, though that, too, is something that the library tries to restrict.) Nor are homeless library patrons often causing violent disturbances or assaulting other patrons—actions for which they would be promptly remanded into the custody of the criminal-justice and/or mental-health systems.
In social services, the hardest cases are often the easiest to handle. Steve Albrecht, a former police officer who consults with libraries on security issues, describes the typical homeless library patron as a “5149½” case, in reference to section 5150 of California’s Welfare and Institutions Code, a provision that allows for involuntary civil commitment for people who represent a danger to themselves or others or are “gravely disabled.” Often, Albrecht explains, the homeless library patron doesn’t meet those criteria. “5149½ is not so bad that the police are going to come and take the guy to a mental health facility but . . . they’re bad enough to be problematic for the staff. And that’s really the challenge.”
Government data attest that the homeless, whether they sleep in a shelter or on the streets, have far higher rates of substance-abuse disorders and serious mental illness than the general population. Library facilities with larger homeless populations will have larger shares of patrons with behavioral health problems. And that, in turn, will mean that such branches will have proportionately lower shares of non-homeless patrons. The NYPL views its commitment to “inclusivity” as a point of pride, not just as a legal requirement. But there’s a difference between de jure and de facto inclusiveness: to say that everyone’s legally entitled to use the library is not to say that everyone does so. The NYPL touts its high levels of usage: 17 million visits a year, 2 million participating in programs. Some facilities, though, such as those in midtown Manhattan, are arguably underused by ordinary New Yorkers, due to their being heavily patronized by the homeless.
All urban library systems have found themselves in the homeless-services business, with varying degrees of enthusiasm. Probably no library has gone as far in embracing its role as a homeless-services provider as San Francisco Public Library, which has a separate social-services department comprising social workers and “peers” (formerly homeless individuals) who do outreach; the library also partners with outside providers, including one that brings mobile shower facilities to the library on a weekly basis. Social services at the NYPL are more modest and are likely to remain so. When asked whether the library plans to expand its social-services offerings, Vice President of Operations Iris Weinshall responded: “Right now, we’re just experimenting with a few programs. We want to see where it takes us and where we go. I know some library systems provide social workers in all their branches. I don’t think the NYPL at this point is prepared to say that.”
The New York Public Library would be wise to avoid a San Francisco–style approach to homelessness. While all libraries want to be humane, none is set up to deal with homelessness, at least not in the manner of institutions fully dedicated to the problem. One gets an idea of the difference when visiting high-quality social-services providers, such as the Doe Fund and Fountain House: activity prevails, with people up and about, going to work, pursuing degrees and professional certifications, learning to cook, working on maintaining or reestablishing relationships with friends and family, gardening, creating art, writing, and so on. By contrast, on a cold winter’s day, SIBL’s reading room resembles an asylum ward from an era when patients would stay for decades without registering much improvement in their condition. “Active” is about the last word that comes to mind—“catatonic” is more like it. The NYPL’s homeless predicament is troubling enough; libraries like San Francisco’s risk betraying their true purpose—and their patrons.
A homeless man beds down outside the New York Public Library’s main branch in Manhattan. (DAVID GROSSMAN / ALAMY STOCK PHOTO)