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 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.
The Metropolitan Library System, which includes the Norick library, has a code of conduct that, among other things, prohibits barefoot or shirtless patrons and those wearing wet clothes or with offensive body odor.
Library system spokeswoman Kim Terry said the homeless issue played no role in the code’s development and that the homeless posed no particular problem.
“I’m sure we get just as many complaints with that as we do with anything else; unattended children, loud cellphones, teens talking back,” Terry said.
Terry said the library does not track individual complaints and would have no way to determine how many complaints involved the homeless.
‘Peace of mind’
On a recent afternoon, both men and women who appeared to be homeless, could be found throughout the downtown library, bundled under heavy layers of grime-stained clothes.
Some sat in the quiet room on library’s second floor.
Others filled the computer terminals sprinkled throughout the building, their belongings on the floor beside them in backpacks, gym bags or paper sacks.
Hancock, a big man with a goatee and two missing front teeth, grew up in the Oklahoma City area and said he has been homeless since losing a temp agency job last summer. He said he goes to the downtown library “pretty much every day.”
For the most part, he feels welcome. Sometimes guards get on him for leaving his belongings while he uses the restroom, he said. He’s seen guards remove people who were sleeping or drunk, but said he’s never had any problems.
In addition to staying warm, he likes to scour the newspaper and read Jack Reacher novels or books by authors John Sandford or John Grisham.
Scott, 43, who said he was on his way to Las Vegas from Tampa Bay, Fla., when he got delayed in Oklahoma City a couple of weeks ago, prefers to read National Geographic and hunting and fishing magazines.
“You can come here and relax,” Hancock said. “It’s quiet and orderly. You just get more peace of mind.”
With that, he and Scott turned and trudged off down the snowy sidewalk.