Exchange Homeless Library

A person sleeps in the main reference area of the New Hampshire State Library in Concord, N.H. — (Geoff Forester/The Concord Monitor via AP)

CONCORD, N.H. — The story about toilet paper said a lot.

It happened last month, in one of the bathrooms at the New Hampshire State Library. A visitor went in and stayed for what seemed like a long time. Too long, really.

So one of the library’s staffers knocked on the door, only to hear a bad word come flying her way. Finally, the man emerged, leaving a roll of toilet paper stuffed in the toilet. Perhaps this was revenge for the earlier interruption.

Michael York, the state librarian, followed the man and said, “This is unacceptable.” The man called him another bad word. The state police were called. They escorted the man, whom York believed was homeless, outside.

Welcome to this grand old building, built in 1896, that is open to everyone during regular business hours. It’s rich in history and art. There’s a statue of native son John Winant, our ambassador to England during World War II, out front on the sidewalk, inviting the public to sit on the bench beside him.

There’s the Romanesque Revival architecture towering above as you walk to the front entrance. There are more reference books and microfilm and data than you could ever absorb in a lifetime.

But it’s also ideal for a homeless person, cold and desperate, this time of year. With plenty of floor space and big rooms and heat and people coming and going all day, the State Library is an attractive place for the homeless, easy to blend in and hard to kick out without trampling on someone’s civil rights.

As York says, “It’s a gray area.”

“My staff handles this in a professional way,” York told me in an interview outside his office. “They deal with it all day long and never lose their professionalism. We’re not going to kick people out if they’re disheveled or have a hygiene problem, but we will ask them to leave if they’re disrespectful or interfere with the public’s pleasure.”

York wants you to know that there’s plenty of quiet time to get work done. Charles Shipman, the supervisor of reference and information services, said boisterous behavior and snoozing happen, but he added the State Library does not resemble a saloon in the Old West.

At the same time, though, the problem cannot be ignored, as illustrated by York’s willingness to meet me and talk for 30 minutes about what he’s seen. One thing he mentioned is that this scenario happens at other libraries as well, which only makes sense.

York learned that a gentleman who once displayed a threatening posture toward him was known elsewhere.

He called the Concord Public Library, and sure enough, they knew who the man was. “He liked to work on the computer alone, with no one around,” said York. “He’d kick out the plugs so screens would go blank and people near him would leave.”

Todd Fabian, director at the Concord Public Library, said there’s been “an uptick” in homeless visitors since January. He said the amount varies, with 25 new faces showing up one day and none from that group the next. He said homeless people often ask for help at the front desk and identify themselves as homeless.

“No two winters are the same,” Fabian said. “The challenge is we get people from all over the state, region and country. When it gets colder, we see people passing through.”

They’re told they are not permitted to sleep there, Fabian said, nor can they spend an inordinate amount of time in front of a computer. But if someone homeless quietly sits and reads, they won’t be bothered, and Fabian said police are rarely needed to escort someone out.

York’s place seems to have more of an edge. He’s been surrounded by books and this odd scenario for decades. He was the director of the University of New Hampshire Manchester library for six years, the dean of the UNH library in Durham for 10 and has been running the show at the State Library for 20.

He had lots of stories. He wore a pair of khakis and a blue sports coat. He’s got plenty of hair, white as snow, for someone in his 70s who once encountered a toilet-clogging homeless man tossing a word at him that I can’t write here.

York sat near a decorative fireplace, with fake logs, trimmed with a marble mantelpiece, beneath a painting of former governor Styles Bridges, who sided with Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s and never cared much for civil rights or due process.

York knows he needs to be careful in this area. You can’t, for example, kick someone out for smelling bad, nor tell someone to leave because their clothes are ripped and soiled. Not if they’re doing legitimate research. Or even if they’re not.

He mentioned a case 25 years ago, when a man in Morristown, New Jersey, sued a public library for violating his rights after he was thrown out for smelling bad.

He was awarded $80,000.

“If you have people who are not concerned with personal hygiene, it’s hard to ask someone to leave because they don’t smell very nice,” York told me. “You cannot do these things in 2019. In the United States, everyone has rights, but for those of us who have to run an organization, you have to figure out a balance.”

A few years ago, one of York’s most trusted employees, a woman with the utmost integrity, an employee with sound judgment, ejected a homeless person who had gotten into a scrap with someone.

“He went across the street to the governor’s office,” York said. “The governor’s office called about us denying this guy access.”

Some scenarios are black and white, York believes, citing those who all but create a daytime residence at the library, sit in front of a computer all day while others wait and, as we’ve already heard, clog the toilet and call you a bad name.

“They may bring in all their belongings,” York said. “They may push two chairs together, make their own bed.”

He pointed to a wall covered in plastic, part of a renovation project going on. “People were setting up camps below that wall, in the New Hampshire Authors’ Room, making a tent out of blankets like we used to do as kids. A while back a person sat at a computer for eight hours. I wanted to put him on the payroll because he was here more than I was.”

Shipman said things usually aren’t that bad, adding that a quiet homeless person who nods off and is not blocking a computer might get away with sleeping for an extended period of time.

“People seem to come in to get warm pretty regularly, but not in great numbers,” Shipman said by phone. “Maybe a handful, a few regulars we see often.”

Recently, with input from staff members, the library adopted a new policy: no more than one hour in front of a computer.

“I balked at that,” York said. “But the staff was right.”

Beyond confronting people engaged in overt cases of rule-breaking, York said he keeps a low profile, mindful that part of the State Library’s appeal is its open-door policy and its role as a resource tool.

He mentioned Studio 54 in New York City during the 1970s and ‘80s, a trendy club that catered to good-looking people with money.

“Who am I to judge someone?” York asked. “Everyone is welcome into the State Library.”

At least initially. Then it comes down to your behavior once inside. The problem has grown to the point where three members of York’s staff are going to the Manchester public Library next week to attend a conference.

They’ll learn how to defuse tension brought in from the streets. Lots can go wrong in a library.

Even in the bathroom.

“We’re trying to understand issues that the homeless face,” York said. “No one seems to have any solutions to these problems.”

— (The Concord Monitor via AP)

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