Seattle Public Library Rules A Bane to the Homeless

by Nathalie Graham

An average of five people are kicked out of Seattle Public Libraries (SPL) each day.

About 2,033 patrons are banned from SPL’s 27 locations each year for violating their rules of conduct. This is devastating to the library’s most disenfranchised visitors: the homeless.

Seattle announced a state of emergency in 2015 concerning homelessness. Currently, almost 3,000 of Seattle’s homeless are without shelter, according to the One Night Count.

Instead of providing space for the homeless at a time when Seattle has experienced one of the coldest winters in recent memory, encampments have been cleared en masse and public work projects have been stalled.

Gabriella Duncan, a formerly homeless Columbia City artist and homeless rights advocate, said the local libraries are a welcome refuge for many.

“Libraries are vital to homelessness,” Duncan said.

She said that homeless shelters were designed by people who have never been homeless: From turning people away for having an illness to being open during hours that are not compatible with working homeless people, shelters are often not viable options.

After three years of being homeless herself, Duncan has personal experience with the frustrations of sheltered living.

Overwhelmingly, shelters are not open around the clock. The homeless often spend their nights in loud, unsafe and crowded shelters, or on the streets.This leaves many searching for quiet places during the day, like a library.

“I’m reminded every holiday when libraries are closed,” Duncan said. “All those people who don’t have anybody are scrambling to find somewhere to go because that means you’re in the cold all day because the shelter kicked you out at six in the morning and you got told not to come back until 10 at night.”

However, these homeless havens, like SPL, aren’t so welcoming. Instead, the Seattle Public Library has 40 rules of conduct.

The rules are to ensure that libraries are welcoming and safe for library users, said SPL’s Communications Director, Andra Addison.

“The library welcomes everyone,” she contended.

A man makes his way up the escalator into the main foyer of the downtown branch of the Seattle Public Library. [Photo: Nathalie Graham]

But should anyone break one of the rules of conduct, they can be excluded from the library for anywhere between three to 30 days for Category A violations. This category of violations includes minor things like littering or leaving a child unattended. There are 21 rules in Category A alone, and several inhibit the habits of homeless visitors.

One rule doesn’t allow lying down or the appearance of sleeping in the library.

“If they don’t have a home, if they’re not well or it’s snowing outside, where do they do that?” Duncan asked. “If there’s no behaviors that are questionable, let them sleep in a chair.”

Addison said that in the past three years, 54 people have been excluded from SPL’s 27 locations because of sleeping.

But, at the same time, the King County Library System (KCLS) did away with their no sleeping rule, according to KCLS Librarian Maggie Block. KCLS is a separate library system, serving 49 locations in suburban King County, whereas SPL serves 27 branches within the Seattle city limits.

They currently don’t have a policy about sleeping patrons because it’s a complicated issue. People experiencing unstable housing or homelessness might accidentally fall asleep in KCLS libraries because they’re exhausted. The library has soft chairs and climate control, Block said, which leads to some understandable mishaps.

“I, and also the people who are making patron behavior policy, want patrons experiencing homelessness to be able to use our libraries and feel safe doing so,” Block said. “We see how having punitive responses for folks who are sleeping affects folks in unstable housing more than other populations. And I really don’t like that.”

This feeling, however, is not universal. If someone is excluded from SPL more than once, they could be banned from the libraries for up to two years, which is the cap specified in the rules of conduct.The most severe exclusion for a single violation lasts 90 days.

This isn’t anything new for homeless people, unfortunately. Last fall, a stretch of homeless encampment under the interstate known as The Jungle was cleared and nearly 400 people were displaced.

A similar clearing happened to an encampment where Duncan stayed in Issaquah. People had nowhere to go, she said.

The library’s rules and exclusion policies limit where homeless people can stay.

“The rules are understandable,” Duncan said, “but definitely leave out people.”

Those who need shelter the most cannot part with their personal belongings, things that rarely fit into the library’s permitted measurements. People who have body odor, or simply can’t keep their eyes open after a sleepless night on the streets can also be excluded. These are just a few of many the things that violate one of SPL’s rules of conduct.

Duncan also dislikes the term “exclusion.” Being excluded is a fundamental experience of homelessness. To Duncan, it’s the same thing as oppression.

“The nature of how we treat each other is important,” she said, “and exclusion is one of the things that is the biggest problem and hindrance to that.”

Despite these disagreements and disproportionately impacting rules of conduct, SPL does outreach when it comes to homelessness.

SPL have staff that go to tent cities, or local homeless camps. The libraries also have social workers at central branches to help visitors in need. In total, there are 11 outreach programs that assist homeless people and lend to shelters and encampments.

But these public safe spaces limit who can enjoy them, with specific codes of conduct that are concerning to those familiar with homelessness. This issue is at exact odds with SPL’s notion of outreach.

“It floors me how housed people put this concept, these expectations, on people who are vulnerable, who have no shelter, who have no way of fighting, who have no way of fighting someone off because they’re sick or they’re weak,” Duncan said. “They want to take a nap in the library, how fucking petty are we?”

nat-gNathalie Graham is an Emerald intern and junior at the University of Washington studying journalism and English. A Los Angeles native, Nathalie is a reporter at The Daily at the University of Washington. Her work has also appeared in the Seattle Globalist and the International Examiner.



9 thoughts on “Seattle Public Library Rules A Bane to the Homeless”

  1. As Danny Westneat said in his recent column, we need a 1000 tiny houses. These are much better places than public libraries for many of the homeless – nice, warm, private places to sleep, where you can get lock up your things and get food and other help.

    And thanks, Gabriella, for your advocacy for the homeless. How’s your “house-sitting” going on Rainier Ave?

    1. I have a place Dick! Thank you for asking! I am still reaching out, just opening up my personal space for some rest and relaxation for a few friends while I recover. It is a serious recovery process and exhausting thank you for asking!

  2. Excellent article on a quickly growing problem. Another problem with the homeless is homeless w/pets. Many abandon animals and homeless come together for want of love and companionship but have few places that will accept them.

  3. I wouldn’t call it petty. I’m in the library right now and it feels much more like a day shelter with books than anything else. If a few people took a nap every once in a while, sure no worries. But people come here and there is no where to sit because every single seat has a homeless person sleeping in it. The bathroom has been shut down three times just today and twice when I’ve been in it, people have all of their belongings sprawled out over the bathroom floor and are washing their privates in sink you’re trying to wash your hands in. All this tells me is that we need a day shelter, with internet, showers and chairs to sleep in. Don’t get mad at the library – they didn’t put those rules in place randomly, they put them in place when other visitors couldn’t use the library for it’s original purpose, A LOT. I think it’s so cool that the library does welcome everybody! But it seems pretty obvious that we need quiet day shelters around here.