I first became homeless in February of 1982, 27 years ago. Since then, I have spent about half of my life homeless. That’s 13 years of literal homelessness. Arriving for the first time in Nashville, a city I had never been to before, and becoming homeless, happened simultaneously. I knew practically nothing about the city of Nashville. So my first days of homelessness were spent mostly hovering around the rescue mission. Eventually I heard about certain downtown landmarks from other homeless people. After quickly tiring of spending my days around the rescue mission I ventured out into the city. It seems that most of downtown Nashville has changed since those days, except for the places of historical merit. I would go for walks to look at the Cumberland River, or the State Capital, or the Tennessee Museum. Since the Tennessee Museum was free, I visited it quite often. And, I would go to the downtown library, at the time it located on Polk Ave, a few blocks away from the current library building. I wasn’t much of a reader, so I didn’t spent much time in the library initially. But I did have an interest in photography and art, so once I discovered those books I was at the library for hours at a time, not reading but looking at the art. I really didn’t care much for what other people said about artwork. I let it speak to me itself, through the pages of those large coffee table sized books. The 750s and 770s is where I spent my time. I eventually got into photography myself and I think that time gazing at artwork developed in me an instinct for composition and an eye for inspiration in the mundane. Eventually I had a couple successful gallery showings of my photography.
During a later episode of homelessness I came to realize just how ignorant most people were about homelessness, so I was inspired to create a newsletter of sorts, that I planned to hand out to people working in the downtown area. Since I knew nothing about making a newsletter, I went to the library and found a couple books on the subject. They seemed a little dated though. About this time, the library had installed it’s first two computers connected to the internet. This was so long ago, computers still did not have the capacity for displaying photographs. But, I did search for information on ‘homelessness” and “newsletter” and discovered websites about a subject I had not heard of before – homeless newspapers. It wasn’t long before I was exchanging emails with the people at Real Change, a homeless newspaper in Seattle, and with the people running the North American Street Newspaper Association, which was created by the National Coalition for The Homeless. With their help, and by utilizing computers at a local homeless shelter, I was able to create my own homeless newspaper. I made the front page of the now defunct Nashville Banner for creating this newspaper. And though it only existed for two issues, making this newspaper lead to chain of events that got me off the streets, into halfway house and eventually into a place of my own.
Fast forward a year and a half later and I’m homeless again. But Nashville had just built a new library, adorned with nearly 200 computers connected to the internet for patron’s use. Before it was so popular, a person could sit all day at a library computer, and that’s what I did, sometimes not even breaking for lunch. By this time, the computers were state of the art, and the internet had a great deal more to offer and was growing phenomenally. In August of 2002, I tried my hand at blogging. At that time blogs were a new and mostly unknown thing. I remember reading an article stating that only 750,000 blogs existed on the internet. Now there are hundreds of millions of them. After a few short weeks the popularity of my blog sky rocketed. Donations came my way through the blog and I was able to get off the streets, and into a cheap motel room with that money. Still, I was suffering from my anxieties and depression, and soon enough the fame of the blog faded and so did the donations, and I ended up back on the streets.
A couple years later the Mayor of Nashville created a homelessness task force, and mostly from my notoriety with the blog, which I still maintained at the library, I was asked to be a part of the task force, and the following year to be on the Metro Homelessness Commission. Most of my contributions to those efforts was made by referencing the internet at the library.
Yet during all this time I was growing increasingly concerned about my homeless state, what was causing it, and how I could possibly overcome it. While watching tv at the halfway house I lived in, I saw a commercial about Paxil, a drug for social anxiety. That was the first time I had heard of “social anxiety” and about Paxil. But I recognized myself in the commercial, so the very next day I was back at the library, researching books and the internet for all the information I could find about it. From that, I learned how to take control of my anxieties and depression so that today I do no suffer from them nearly to the extent I used to.
A couple years ago, a new homeless newspaper, The Contributor, hit the streets of Nashville, and luckily I was able to be a part of that happening. Some of the very first organizational meets in the creation the paper took place at the library.
Between these highlights, the library has been a focal point of my homelessness. Days began and ended at the library. I have known several librarians by name and consider them to be friends. And the library is where I met up with what few friends I had from the streets. When I conducted business of one kind or another, the library was where I met with other people. It was a central location that most everyone was familiar with.
I have had only a few negative experiences with libraries and they were due usually to an over zealous librarian or security guard enforcing some rule or another.
Once I brought with me into the library a backpack and a rolled up sleeping bag. As I sat at a computer, a security guard walked up to me, pulled out a measuring tape, measured my things and told me that the combined length of my backpack and sleeping bag was over the limit, and that I’d have to leave. Well, my backpack was empty enough so I stuffed my sleeping bag into the backpack virtually cutting the combined length of my things in half. I did not leave the library and he said nothing more to me. Later that day the regular rush of school children hit the library. In Nashville, many children ride city buses instead of school buses. All the city buses transfer downtown, within walking distance of the library. All of these kids came into the library carrying large book bags, musical instruments in cases and a lot of other school related paraphernalia. And as these kids walked past this security guard, he said absolutely nothing to them about the “combined length” of their items being over the limit. One kid in particular always carried a cello which was taller than he was.
Another time, I was having a conversation with a couple other homeless people. Our voices were of a normal volume, no debating, just talking. And, we were located in a corner of the library away from other reading patrons. But, when a librarian walked past us on her way to her desk, she told us that we had to keep our voices low, or else we’d have to leave the library. We did as she requested and spoke softer. Then a woman with three children in tow walked up to this librarians desk. Two of the children were running circles around their mother playing tag and laughing and yelling at each other. And then the younger child in her arms started crying loudly about nothing anyone could discern. This went on for a good 15-20 minutes, and in all that time the librarian said absolutely nothing to the woman about the noise her kids were making. Oh, and when the school age children come into the library they are quite loud as well. I’ve learned that the library is a good place for playing hide and seek. And for the older teens, a place for making out. 🙂
Of course sleeping in the library is not allowed, but they have gone too far with enforcing that rule. Homeless people have been banned from the library for a month or more for that very violation. I believe they have calmed down on that level of enforcement, but looking for potentially sleeping homeless people occupies and inordinate amount of the security guards day. Several warnings are given to people for sleeping before they are forced to leave the library, but even having your eyes closed for longer than a blink will have the attention of the guards. It’s actually spelled out in the library rooms that having your eyes closed, or even praying, is against the rules. It is an unwarranted fear that libraries will turn into flop houses if the homeless are allowed to have a few minutes sleep. It is not as if the homeless are rolling out their sleeping bags and setting up camp. Sleep deprivation is common for homeless people, and when in the right environment of reading a book in a quite and warm place, it is easy for them to drift off into sleep. In most cases, falling asleep in a library is unintentional. The offense does not require harsh punishment.
I think a good way to curtail the sleeping in libraries is for cities to open up homeless shelters for day sleeping. I don’t know of a single homeless shelter that offers that, but it’s a good idea non-the-less. There are many good entry level jobs on 2nd and 3rd shifts that homeless people just cannot take because shelters do not offer day sleeping options.
The best thing that libraries can do for the homeless is to treat them with the same status afforded to all other library patrons.
I got my first library card when the book mobile came by my house. I was ecstatic not only with the selection of books, (God bless you Dr Suess) but with how many I could take with me at one time! That stack of books in my arms was a real treasure. This event was also my first experience with library fines. Use of the library was not encouraged in my house after that. I still have a hard time getting books back in time.