Homeless take shelter in library

September 22, 2009|By ERIN JULIUS

HAGERSTOWN -- Washington County Free Library staff members usually can tell which of the people sitting in the main branch in downtown Hagerstown are there to get out of the cold or the rain or the heat.

But then, it's not difficult to spot those who are homeless, Washington County Free Library Director Mary Baykan said.

"They bring in a lot of their worldly goods, it looks like. They also bring little lunch sacks given to them when they leave the shelter in the morning," Baykan said last winter.

More than five years after library officials, finding that homeless people were spending winter days in the library at 100 S. Potomac St., called for a daytime shelter, the homeless still have nowhere to go during the day. Some spend their days reading and chatting in the library.

Shelters in the area provide a place for the homeless to spend the night, but generally do not allow them to remain during the day. Those participating in a residential program can stay at the Hagerstown Rescue Mission during the day.


Members of a Lifehouse West church group who go into wooded areas to minister to the homeless know that when the regulars aren't in the woods, they're likely to find some of them at the library. On more than one spring day, the group arrived at the library bearing bag lunches, tents, shoes and blankets.

When it gets hot, water is the most important gift.

Library officials, in a story published in The Herald-Mail in August 2003, were quoted as saying "(It) has become increasingly difficult for the library to provide services during the winter because of the presence of homeless people."

A sense of security

Because some of homeless people use the library on South Potomac Street as a shelter from the weather, security was added in recent years, Baykan said.

The library staff, mostly female, felt harassed by the mostly male homeless population who were spending time there, library officials were quoted as saying in 2003. Some felt patrons had been asked for money and others said they were ogled, library officials said at the time.

Security personnel now blend in with patrons as they keep an eye on things, mostly in the afternoons, evenings and on weekends. The security was added "about the time, 2003, when we started to see issues that were not conducive to a healthy atmosphere," Baykan said.

Library officials also rely on Hagerstown City Police officers.

"If we need them, they're here in a New York minute," Baykan said.

The practice of homeless people passing the time in libraries isn't unique to Hagerstown. It is becoming a national urban problem, Baykan said.

The results of a survey released in the March/April edition of Public Libraries, the journal of the American Library Association, bears out what Baykan said.

The survey of 1,300 public libraries found that 90 percent of staff members who responded said patrons with mental illness had "disturbed or affected" others in the library.

About 85 percent of library staff members surveyed said they had to call police, according to the study, which is detailed on the Web site of The Treatment Advocacy Center, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to eliminating barriers to the timely and effective treatment of severe mental illness, one of the factors that leads to homelessness.

Libraries are becoming day shelters for those who need treatment but are not getting it, said lead study author E. Fuller Torrey, M.D., founder of The Treatment Advocacy Center, with offices in Arlington, Va.

"People with untreated psychiatric illnesses constitute one-third, or between 150,000 and 200,000 people, of the estimated 744,000 homeless population," according to The Treatment Advocacy Center's Web site at

Dealing without judging

Local library staff is instructed to deal with questionable behavior without judging the person.

"We're not mental health experts," Baykan said. "We've had people who attempt to be disruptive and, bless their hearts, it's obvious they may have some mental or emotional issues."

"This country, a long time ago, dumped its mentally ill on the streets," Baykan said. "These people do not get the help they so desperately need," and may act out in public, she said.

Library patrons, even the homeless, must use the library to read or do research, and staff members don't allow people to sleep or to engage in loud conversations, Baykan said.

"All are welcome, but all must behave," she said.

Even so, people are nervous about the homeless, Baykan said.

"What we try to do is assure people that we don't tolerate inappropriate behavior," said Baykan, noting that anyone with problems or concerns may go to library staff members, who will follow up on it.

Hagerstown Police Chief Arthur Smith said police receive complaints about conduct in the library.

"We understand this population has a lot of problems," Smith said.

He said his department tries to walk a "fine line" between the needs of the homeless and the public's right to use the library.

His department spends time mediating the situation and attends meetings with cold weather shelter personnel. The goal is to come up with solutions that allow the shelter to take care of the homeless so the rest of downtown can succeed, he said.

For more information

More information about The Treatment Advocacy Center can be found at

The Herald-Mail Articles