YOU ARE HERE: LAT HomeCollections

Written off

A librarian's days among the chronically homeless.

April 01, 2007|Chip Ward | Chip Ward was, until recently, assistant director of the Salt Lake City Public Library. A longer version of this article appears at

OPHELIA SITS BY THE FIREPLACE and mumbles softly, smiling and gesturing at no one in particular. She gazes out the window through the two pairs of glasses she wears at once. When her muttering disturbs the woman seated beside her, Ophelia turns, chuckles and explains, "Don't mind me, I'm dead." Not at all reassured, the woman gathers her belongings and moves quickly away. Ophelia shrugs. Verbal communication is tricky. She prefers telepathy, she says.

Mick is having a bad day too. He has not misbehaved but sits and stares, glassy-eyed. This is usually the prelude to a seizure. His seizures are easier to deal with than Bob's, for instance, because he usually has them while seated and so, unlike Bob, he rarely hits his head and bleeds, nor does he ever soil his pants.

Franklin sits quietly by the fireplace and reads a magazine about celebrities. He is fastidiously dressed and might be mistaken for a businessman or a professional. His demeanor is confident and normal. If you watch him closely, though, you will see him slowly slip his hand into the pocket of his sport coat and furtively pull out a long, shiny carpenter's nail. With it, he carefully pokes out the eyes of the celebs in any photo.

These may sound like scenes from a psych ward. But in fact, this is the Salt Lake City Public Library, which, like virtually all the urban libraries in the nation, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city's homeless. It's also the place where I was, until recently, the assistant director.

In bad weather, most of the homeless have nowhere to go but public places. Local shelters push them out at 6 in the morning and, even when the weather is good, they are already lining up by the time the library opens at 9 because they want to sit down and recover from the chilly dawn or use the restrooms. Fast-food restaurants, hotel lobbies, office foyers and shopping malls do not tolerate them for long. Public libraries, on the other hand, are open and tolerant, even inviting and entertaining places for them to seek refuge from a world that will not abide their often disheveled and odorous presentation, their odd and sometimes obnoxious behaviors and the awkward challenges they present.

"Homeless" may not be a precise enough term for the people we see in the library. These are not the people for whom homelessness is a temporary, once-in-a-lifetime experience. The people we find in the library are those for whom homelessness is a way of life. We see them sleeping in parks, huddled over grates on sidewalks, resting on subway cars, passed out in doorways or panhandling with crude cardboard signs. Social workers refer to them as the chronically homeless, and studies of shelter users indicate that they make up 10% to 20% of the total homeless population.

The most salient characteristic of these people is that most of them are mentally ill. The data on how many homeless are estimated to be mentally ill vary widely, between 10% and 70% -- depending on whether all the homeless or just the chronically homeless are included and depending on how illness or disability are defined. How, for example, do you categorize alcoholics and drug addicts?

When Crash is sober, for instance, he reasons like you or me and converses normally. Unfortunately, he is rarely sober. In one of his better moments, he petitioned me to let him stay in the library even though he had recently been caught drinking -- an automatic six-month suspension. "C'mon, give me another chance," he pleaded.

Crash was sitting in his wheelchair in the foyer outside my office. It was always hard for me to address Crash without staring at the massive scar on his face -- a deep crease that divides it from his scalp to his chin. Unfortunately, his nose is also divided and the sides do not match up, giving him an asymmetrical appearance like a Picasso painting on wheels.

"Alcoholics pass out in the library's chairs," I explained. "If you piss your pants or puke, the custodians have to clean that up, and they hate that. You guys fall down and knock things over. You're unpredictable when you drink. You disrupt others. Public intoxication is against the law.... "

"OK, OK," he interrupted me, "I get it. Hey, just thought I'd try to get back in is all -- no hard feelings, man."

No hard feelings, I assured him. We shook hands. I wished I could cut him some slack, but I couldn't afford to establish a precedent I couldn't keep. The rule is clear: No drinking in the library, and no exceptions. As he waited for the elevator, I asked, "I know it's none of my business, but how did you get that scar?"

"Car accident," he replied. "Same one as put me in this wheelchair. That's why they call me Crash."

"Were you drinking?" I ask.

He shakes his head "yes" and sighs. "Drunk as a skunk ... drunk as a skunk."

Los Angeles Times Articles