On a freezing gray afternoon with snow clinging to sidewalks, Jeff Hancock relaxed at a table in the warm lobby of the Ronald J. Norick Downtown Library.
He'd read the newspaper, checked his Facebook page and now was chatting with Charles Scott, a man he'd met a few days before.
Soon, they would head to a homeless shelter to catch a hot meal. Around them, surrounded by decorative Christmas trees full of twinkling lights and shimmering ornaments, sat a half-dozen other souls in similar straits.
For many of the city's homeless, the $21.5 million glass and steel structure at the corner of Park and Hudson is more than just a civic jewel.
For them, it's a place to put aside, if only for a while, the realities of their harsh existence on the cold winter streets.
“Forget is a good word,” Scott said. “You don't have to think about where you're going next or what wall you're going to get behind to get out of the wind.”
Code of conduct
Across the country, libraries often provide harbor for the homeless.
“There's definitely a recognition that libraries, in tough times, become a haven or a refuge for homeless people, particularly when the weather isn't good,” said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. “It's a logical place for people to come and find solace, as well as things that they can do, whether it's reading, perusing the Internet, whatever it might be.”
What hasn't changed, Sullivan said, is the commitment of librarians to serve a diverse population, be inclusive of anyone who wants to use the library and provide an open and welcoming space.
“It's one of the few places where anyone can come in and do what they're there to do. Whether it's to find information, to read, to just have a quiet place or a place to socialize,” Sullivan said.
That doesn't mean libraries haven't struggled with the issue. Some patrons are uncomfortable with having what appear to be homeless people in the library, Sullivan said.
As a result, many libraries have developed standards for acceptable behavior that ban such activities as sleeping, loitering, panhandling, changing clothes or bathing.
“That has been a tool that has been used to make sure everybody in the library understands that it's a public space, and we have to be respectful of each other,” Sullivan said.