homeless people

When I was in China (remember that? when I had wacky crazy stories to tell? sigh) there were homeless people/beggars/whatever. Not in India numbers but they were around. Now being back home it’s kind of strange to see so many more.

Part of it is where I live and where I walk. One of my friends who’s been away from town for a few years remarks about what a slum the city has become. And driving down my back lane last week, yeah it seemed pretty dirty and gross. Garbage strewn everywhere, garages in a state of inexorable collapse. This isn’t the Canada I told my students about when I was getting ticked off at the constant spitting in China. So yeah, I don’t live in the suburbs any more.

The other part is working at the library. I’m so glad I’m not in a position of responsibility that has to decide how to deal with smelly, sometimes drunk, possibly crazy patrons. This morning I read an article on public libraries and the homeless, which I’ve excerpted a few bits from below.

Any tendency towards a psychological problem is aggravated and magnified by the constant stress, social isolation, loss of self-esteem, despair, and relentless boredom of street life. Imagine the degradation of waiting an hour in the cold rain to get into a soup kitchen for a meal; the hassle of hunting endlessly for an unpoliced spot to sleep; the constant fear of being robbed or attacked by other street people; or the indignity of defecating in a vacant lot. It’s a combination that would probably drive a mentally healthy person to psychosis and substance abuse.

In our library there aren’t many people who are as completely whacked out as in the article. There’s the friendly woman who watches videos and tells the screen how much she loves them. Sometimes she’ll ask me how I’m doing as I push a cart by. There are the quiet guys who sit on the fourth floor reading book after book about World War II. The other day one of them was sleeping in the comfortable chair way down by Persian Poetry (the 890somethings) when I came back there to shelve some stuff. He woke up and tried to look like he hadn’t been asleep. Whatever.

The other day though, the guy who reads Sufi texts out loud got kicked out of the library for some reason (possibly for reading Sufi texts out loud and then getting pissed off at the people who ignored him, which I’ve seen happen). I was shelving on the main floor so I only got a partial view/listen. He was furious. This little middle-aged south Asian man then stood out in the lobby berating people, telling them about what jerks we were inside who wouldn’t let him be. Most people worrysmiled and nodded.

Serious respiratory problems among the chronically homeless in a shelter are as common as beer guts at a racetrack. If an epidemic strikes, the susceptibility of the homeless will translate into an increased risk of exposure for the rest of us and, eerily enough, our public libraries could become Ground Zeroes for the spread of killer flu. Librarians are reluctant to make plans for handling such scenarios because we do not want to convey the message that America’s libraries are anything but the safe and welcoming environments they remain today.

But here’s the thing: It’s not just about libraries. The chronically homeless share bus stops, subways, park benches, handrails, restrooms, drinking fountains, and fast-food booths with us or with others we encounter daily, who also share the air we breathe and the surfaces we touch. When sick or drunk, they vomit in public restrooms (if we are lucky). Having a population that is at once vulnerable to disease and able to spread microbes widely to others is simply foolish — and unnecessary — public policy, but in the library we focus on more immediate risks. We offer our staff hepatitis vaccinations and free tuberculosis checks. We place sanitizing gels and latex gloves at every public desk. Who would guess that working in a library could be a hazardous occupation?

Again, this isn’t as severe downtown. I’ve never seen a patron shit himself or puke or be messy apart from leaving a pile of magazines for me to clean up. But it’s something I’ve thought about.

One commenter on that Alternet article said this:

I live in Montreal, which attracts transients from all over Quebec. The libraries here have bouncers at the door to keep them out. Not just the university libraries, either… if you are a homeless person trying to enter the Quebec provincial library, it just won’t happen. Brutal or understandable? Not quite sure.

That makes me really sad. We shouldn’t keep people from our public spaces because they stink.

Related to all this, a buddy told me the other day about a YouTube video of a guy pooping in the Square (our underground downtown mallish thing). If you go there to watch it though, look at the reactions in the comments. There’s a lot of hate, which made me really uncomfortable (yes it’s the internet and people tend to smack talk a lot, but still). I checked out the video because it’s a guy pooping in a potted plant with business people passing by at every moment. That’s comedy gold (or at least a very low-rent stunt in the Jackass vein)! I have no idea why he didn’t use a restroom. They do exist down there, but it didn’t really bother me. Of course, I may be desensitized due to the constant street pooping we got back in Ten Thousand Town. But really, to “kill all the Indians” because the guy didn’t use a public restroom? People are idiots.

So yes, that’s it. Go read the Alternet article, because it’s really quite good.

One thought on “homeless people

  1. I was in the Cambridge public library the other day, and there was this guy in the cubicle next to me, catching some zzz’s. The librarian came over, woke him up and asked him to leave. I felt sorry for the guy. I mean, why couldn’t he just sleep there for a bit? It’s a tough situation. … I’ll read the article.

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