Tougher library policies would penalize homeless patrons for sleeping, body odor

In response to Mayor Ed Lee's concerns, the library is looking to bulk up security

The way homeless residents are treated in San Francisco has come under scrutiny lately, with recent reports of homeless individuals being sprayed with hoses by Department of Public Works staff who started doing early-morning sidewalk cleanings nearby Twitter’s mid-Market headquarters.

This week, much discussion has been focused on homeless individuals’ use of the city’s Main Library – and while library administrators say they are just trying to make the facility safe and enjoyable for everyone, advocates have voiced concern that the homeless are being unfairly targeted.

“We want people to use the library from all walks of life,” library spokesperson Michelle Jeffers told the Bay Guardian, saying a new set of proposed policies is not meant to be directed at homeless people in particular.

But it’s difficult to imagine who else would be bathing in the restrooms, for instance, or bringing a shopping cart into the library.

There is even a line in the code of conduct policy that forbids emitting “strong or pervasive odors.” While the policy notes that this could mean perfume, it could also mean body odor.

At a recent meeting, the San Francisco Library Commission considered bulking up security staff and imposing stricter penalties for these violations and others, such as sleeping in the library, asking for money, or bringing carts or luggage into the building.

Under proposed revisions to the library’s “Code of Conduct,” patrons could face tougher penalties for such offenses.

While those violations currently result in a simple warning, library staff recommended banning people from the premises for the rest of the day for such behavior. On a second and third offense, patrons would be banned for three days and seven days, respectively.

Meanwhile, staff recommended increasing the time that a patron could be suspended from the library for “unreasonable use of rest rooms,” including “laundering, bathing, smoking, soliciting, or clogging plumbing.”

Currently a person can be banned for three days for such behavior; staff recommended banning them for three months instead. The maximum suspension period for this offense, meanwhile, would increase from one month to one year.

“This all stems from the mayor’s visit, a few months ago,” Jeffers explained in an interview with the Bay Guardian. “He issued a letter to the library commission, saying ‘I call on you to look at more stringent policies for dealing with bad behavior.’”

On the whole, problematic incidents within the library have actually declined, according to Jeffers. The most recent data reflected a 32 percent decline in overall incidents since 2011, and an 18 percent decline since 2012.

But several high-profile incidents caused Mayor Ed Lee to issue a call to action, Jeffers said.

“A man was arrested for urinating on books,” she explained. In another incident, “A person took a hammer and broke a computer.” Someone else threw a chair at a patron.

While many of the new policy recommendations address issues such as assault, harassment, indecent exposure, or weapons, advocates of the homeless population say many of the proposed rules unfairly target a population that has few other options for being indoors during the day.

Representatives from the Coalition on Homelessness and voiced concern at the Library Commission meeting, saying the proposed rules unfairly targeted a vulnerable population and were just another example of criminalizing homelessness in San Francisco at a time when people face steeper challenges than ever to securing permanent housing.

On Wed/19, library officials met with COH director Jennifer Friedenbach and others.

Jeffers said the library is committed to working with the coalition, and noted that the recommendations will be revisited and resubmitted in coming months.

“It’s a difficult situation, because we want people to feel safe in the library,” Jeffers said. “But many people who are experiencing homelessness also want to feel safe in the library.”

Bevan Dufty, appointed by Mayor Ed Lee to help the city coordinate homeless services, said a better approach is needed.

“Years ago, when I was on the [Board of Supervisors Budget and Finance Committee], and the library asked for a dramatic increase in security funds, I went and talked to [Chief Librarian] Luis Herrera … and said, Luis, I get it. Patrons see people doing their laundry in the bathrooms, they see problems. Why not hire a social worker?”

The library has done so, and both Jeffers and Dufty report that this program has been successful in connecting homeless patrons with services. Yet the library continues to aim for tougher regulations and enforcement, in accordance with Mayor Lee’s wishes.

“I’ve been a big advocate for Five Keys, which is the adult charter school that existed in our jails for the past 12 years,” Dufty added. “I have said to Luis, hey, this would be good. People are clearly coming here for refuge. I get that people sleeping, and doing other things are problematic, But why not have a school where people could be engaged? Some of the people may not even be literate who are sitting in the library.”