Libraries double as shelters

Posted: April 29, 2009 in Uncategorized

Libraries do balancing act as

mentally ill find refuge

Quiet place draws the troubled

Updated: 04/29/2009 08:54:45 AM MDT



Joe Cunningham, 62, homeless and bipolar, spends his day at the Denver Public Library downtown. A new study finds nine in 10 library staffers nationally say mentally ill patrons have affected their facility’s use by others. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

They’re gathered outside the library before the doors open — the man in the Winnie the Pooh sweatshirt talking loudly to no one, the guy crouched behind the book drop, his torn backpack overflowing with everything he owns.

Some, the ones sleeping on the streets, head straight for the bathroom to wash their faces and brush their teeth. Others immediately stake out a nook in the four-story Denver Public Library near downtown, settling in for the day.

Many libraries across the country have become day shelters for the mentally ill, a consequence of the country’s lack of treatment programs for people with mental disorders, experts say.

The not-so-subtle problem was quantified in a recent survey of 1,300 public libraries, including some in Colorado: 90 percent of library staff said mentally ill patrons have disturbed the use of the library by other people. About 85 percent have had to call police.

Denver police are called to one of the city’s 23 branch libraries about twice each week on average. The Central Library across the street from Civic Center park has the most disturbances, ranging from passed-out or disruptive patrons to assaults and two stabbings since 2002.

In 2005, a mentally ill, homeless man slashed another transient man’s throat outside the elevators after they argued in the bathroom. Three years earlier, a woman was stabbed in the children’s area by a man recently released from prison who wanted to go back.

Several times, police chases that started in Civic Center have ended in the library, where drug dealers try to hide in the 10-foot bookshelves, said Celeste Jackson, the library’s public information officer.

But the majority of mentally ill people who visit the library follow the rules, sitting alone as they flip through books or surf the Internet, she said.

Daytime shelter rare

Joe Cunningham, who has bipolar and post-traumatic stress disorders, studied his notebook of architectural sketches for his $2 million, Victorian dream home at a library table last week.

Cecil Miller, 53, cleans up in the bathroom of the Denver Public Library’s Central branch. Library staffers no longer use the first-floor facilities. (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post)

The Vietnam veteran used to see a psychiatrist through the Department of Veterans Affairs, but his treatment was cut off because he was not honorably discharged — he punched a sergeant in the face, he said.

“I don’t take nothing,” Cunningham said, sitting near the wheelchair he uses to tote his belongings. “I just deal with it the best way I can.”

Cunningham, 62, sleeps in a shelter and sometimes seeks air-conditioning or heat during the day at the library.

Cecil Miller, who has bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, complained that there are few places to hang out besides a public library. Daytime shelters such as St. Francis Center and Father Woody’s Chapel of Hope are scarce and crowded.

Miller, who camps out with his wife behind a pawnshop, has been homeless since he lost his hotel janitorial job a year ago.

“I don’t want to be here,” he said, sitting outside the library near a shopping cart filled with his possessions. “I didn’t want my illness.”

On a recent day, he searched art books to find a picture of a Rembrandt painting he loves.

Librarians struggle daily to balance public safety and public access — for everyone.

“We work really hard to make it a safe place,” said Thomas Scott, manager of security for Denver Public Library. “Instead of being angry when someone sees a homeless person in a library, be thankful there is an opportunity at the library to turn themselves around.” Librarians often help people set up e-mail accounts, which could put a homeless person on the path to a job and housing, he said.

Security officers have banned mentally ill people for cussing out staff, touching staff inappropriately, stealing CDs or books, and falling asleep more than three times. To return, a person must sign a “behavioral contract” after a sit-down meeting with Scott.

A policy against odor

At Aurora Central Library, there is, among other safety rules, an odor policy, supervisor Linda Shaw said.

“We do need to balance the needs of everyone and make sure the library is a safe and welcoming place where people would want to return,” she said, adding that librarians call police less than once a month.

Some librarians who took part in the survey, published this month by the American Library Association, reported that mentally ill people had punched them, stalked them or tossed chairs at them.

The troubles are the “ongoing public disaster of emptying our hospitals and then not ensuring that people got treatment,” said E. Fuller Torrey, the study’s lead author and founder of the nonprofit Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia. His research found 66 percent of libraries have changed their rules because of mentally ill visitors.

At the Denver Public Library, security guards are constantly on foot patrol, scouting for disruptive behavior. People without a child aren’t allowed in the children’s area.

And the first-floor restrooms have such a bad reputation, library staff don’t use them. Syringes once clogged the plumbing, and security officers have busted sexual hook-ups and drug activity in the stalls.

Last week, Peter Allsopp, who walked his granddaughter to their car while her mother finished checking out books, acknowledged watching the preschooler a bit more closely because of the surroundings.

“I noticed a few people in there that were homeless,” he said. “But more than anything, I have compassion for them.”

Jennifer Brown: 303-954-1593 or


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