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MLK Library can help itself by helping the homeless

The days of metal detectors and risky bathrooms seem a thing of the past at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Library, but one thing has not changed. The library remains a destination for the homeless and lost souls of Washington.

Man at MLK Library with his possessions in a trash bag. Photo by the author.

In a city brimming with specialized research libraries, university libraries, and governmental libraries, the DC Public library is the people's library. 24 branches, many newly built or renovated, serve residents in neighborhoods throughout the city's quadrants, while the flagship MLK Library serves the whole.

With the Board of Library Trustees meeting on Wednesday to discuss the future of the MLK Library, now is the time to also think broadly about the building's immediate needs. One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.

Library has little recourse against problem patrons

"There was some man outside of the children's section talking loudly about killing children," an unsettled mother with a young child in tow told a library police officer one Sunday earlier this year, as she hastened to make her exit. "There he is," she said, pointing out a diminutive bearded and disheveled man simultaneously making his way out of the building.

While the woman and her child exited the library, the officer quickly stopped and questioned the man. As with incidents of lewd sexual acts, drunkenness, drug use, threats against staff and even occurrences of patrons destroying and defacing books, the library police have but two options: 1) call the Metropolitan Police Department and 2) issue a subsequent ban on that patron from re-entering the library for a certain period of time.

A staff member who spoke on the condition of anonymity said, looking out over a room with no less than a half dozen patrons sleeping, "There is literally nothing we can do. Don't get me wrong, we have people who have been coming here for years. They read, don't bother anyone. Some copy passages out of books. They might use the bathroom to clean up and that's it. Every day is the same. But then we have some people who really need help. This is not where they should be."

Other cities have social workers to help the homeless

DC is not unlike other cities whose downtown libraries serve homeless populations, but unlike other cities, the DC Public Library does nearly nothing to address the constant concerns of staff and patrons. According to administrative sources, the DC Library has a roving case manager on staff but he or she is rarely, if ever, seen at MLK, where there's a large homeless concentration.

The DC Library administration could follow the lead of the San Francisco Public Library system, which has "turned the page" on dealing with the homeless who patronize their main library. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, in late January 2009 the San Francisco system became the first in the country to address its longstanding problems (no different than what goes on at MLK) with homeless patrons by bringing on a full-time psychiatric social worker.

Through an inter-governmental partnership with the San Francisco Department of Public Health, the library hired the social worker to be "on hand five days a week handling complaints from staff and patrons about people's behavior, and calling in security only if things get really ugly."

Along with helping homeless patrons to find other services in the city, including housing and food assistance, job training, substance abuse treatment, mental health counseling, and literacy tutoring, library workers received training in responding to unpleasant behavior.

Not stopping there, the San Francisco system instituted a 12-week "vocational rehabilitation" program for the library's homeless and formerly homeless population. Upon completion, graduates are hired to work in the system. The DC Library already has a similar program in place, Teens of Distinction, which trains city youth to work in low-level administrative support positions, often the teenagers' first job experience.

UPO van on its daily pick-up outside the MLK Library. Photo by the author.
San Francisco's approach could be easily replicated in DC. Like clockwork vans from the United Planning Organization (UPO) come every evening to return the homeless to their respective shelter. UPO, the city's official Community Action Agency is already well aware of MLK Library's homeless population and their needs. Through a partnership with other city agencies case management and direct services could begin to be tracked and better delivered.

Without an organized city effort local universities, non-profits and church groups regularly perform service outreach projects at the library. For example, on many evenings hot meals and backpacks stuffed with personal hygiene products and new socks are distributed at the corner of 9th & G Street underneath the shelter of the library's Mies Van Der Rohe designed arcade.

While the American Library Association has released information on how to serve homeless patrons, the DC library administration appears uninterested. By not addressing this need, the current library administration enables a culture of dependency among its homeless instead of a culture of self-improvement, and turns away other potential patrons who are intimidated by the homeless presence.

John Muller is an associate librarian, journalist and historian. He has written two books, Frederick Douglass in Washington, DC, Mark Twain in Washington, DC, and also writes at Death and Life of Old Anacostia


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Err, what about posting a guard at the door and stopping the homeless from entering?

by charlie on Sep 18, 2012 10:52 am • linkreport

I think the major reason this has not been addressed is that no one is really complaining. Most DC residents probably just go to a branch library rather than go to MLK, where they will encounter the homeless. Most homeless people keep to themselves and don't bother anyone, but the few that do make going to the library (or even just walking by on the street) an unpleasant experience. You can bet if more (non-homeless) people relied on MLK as their main library, this problem would have been dealt with already.

PS - I am having serious difficulty with the captcha. It sometimes takes me 5-6 tries to get my comment to post, even though my answer to the question is always correct.

by Rebecca on Sep 18, 2012 10:55 am • linkreport

As much as I shrink from the smell of urine, you can't keep the homeless out. It's a public library and open to all. Period.

by Thayer-D on Sep 18, 2012 10:59 am • linkreport


Not sure if your comment was meant to be serious, but this is a public library. It is open to everyone, as long as they abide by the rules of the facility. Preventing someone from entering based on anything other than their behavior would be illegal and wrong.

by Rebecca on Sep 18, 2012 11:04 am • linkreport

This is an important conversation for the city to have - MLK has become a serious haven for the homeless, but an adequate response has never been made. Good article.

by Phil on Sep 18, 2012 11:17 am • linkreport

This is a problem for all libraries, and unless something is done about it public support for libraries may decline if the general public does not feel safe or comfortable using them.

by spookiness on Sep 18, 2012 11:19 am • linkreport

MLK *is* my local branch and I'm just not comfortable spending anytime there with all the strange characters. I reserve books online, pick them up and promptly exit.

The population of homeless using the library wouldn't be so bad if it weren't for all the shelters around the city dumping them there daily.

by JeffB on Sep 18, 2012 11:22 am • linkreport

While I agree it may be legally hard to prevent homeless from entering, that should be the end goal. I'd suggest removing restrooms or a refundable deposit to enter.

Goodies aren't for everyone.

Now, on to removing those damn kids from Gallery Place.

by charlie on Sep 18, 2012 11:36 am • linkreport

DC Public library is the people's library...

Sorry, if you can't take your kid there without some mentally ill person shrieking that he's going to kill them, it ain't "the people's library". There should be a "one strike and you're out" policy for adults: if you can manage to behave yourself, you can use it. If not, you're banned for life.

Untreated mental illness is a tragedy, and the greater society should be doing more to compel people to be treated, but I'm a bit tired of urban Americans being forced to shoulder all the burden of homelessness and mental illness.

by oboe on Sep 18, 2012 11:40 am • linkreport

Perhaps DC government could pay UPO to take the homeless to one of the many branches of the Loundon County Public Library system. This would have twofold benefit: it would a) reduce the load on DC services and it would b) promote awareness and support for homeless issues among (more) politically conservative suburbanites.

by oboe on Sep 18, 2012 11:47 am • linkreport

A library has to be open to the public, but at the end of the day, either it's a library or it's a homeless shelter. It can't be both, and in fact the public is voting with its feet here. MLK has been de facto converted into a day shelter.

Forgive me for saying this, but it's supposed to be a library. That is the function of this particular facility. The homeless must be relocated elsewhere.

by Crickey7 on Sep 18, 2012 11:53 am • linkreport


check the "Save my name and email address on this computer so I don't have to enter it next time, and so I don't have to answer the anti-spam map challenge question in the future." below the comment field.

Voila, no more captchas to deal with going forward.

by NikolasM on Sep 18, 2012 11:59 am • linkreport

One key issue is that the library must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: the homeless.

I agree that something must be done to meaningfully address the issue of homeless people at the library, but I'm not so sure about the use of the word "patron" to describe people who generally just loiter, sleep or panhandle at the library.

If homeless people came into the National Gallery of Art to sleep, you would not call them museum patrons, would you? What about if they came into a Starbucks to sleep?

by Scoot on Sep 18, 2012 12:06 pm • linkreport


One key issue is that Gallery Place must acknowledge and reach out to its most loyal but underserved patrons: violent teenagers.


by oboe on Sep 18, 2012 12:10 pm • linkreport

Interesting example from SF. Thanks.

FWIW, in 2007, I led a visioning effort for the Foggy Bottom Assn. wrt development issues in the West End. One of the things I suggested was a conference on dealing with homeless issues at the library, because it is as much an issue at the West End branch as it is at MLK. The DC Library Renaissance Project was interested in pursuing this, but the conference never came off.

It's true that it isn't fair that DCPL has to deal with this, but they have to because it affects their patrons, and other DC agencies should be tasked with helping them address this.

Years ago, when I suggested that the MLK library be opened with extended hours into the late night hours, the first thing that librarians mentioned in response was that later hours would make the homeless problem there even worse.

by Richard Layman on Sep 18, 2012 12:35 pm • linkreport

(Most of) The homeless at MLK library aren't patrons. The homeless guy I see at Fuddruckers who buys a coke and then fills a to-go box with lettuce, tomatoes and mayo is a patron because at least he bought something.

Also, letting the homeless treat the MLK bathroom as a place to clean themselves up should never, ever be tolerated either.

by Fitz on Sep 18, 2012 12:59 pm • linkreport

Perhaps DC government could pay UPO to take the homeless to one of the many branches of the Loundon County Public Library system

Loudoun would have no problem instituting Charlie's ideas for preventing the homeless from entering the library if it came to that. DC pays a price for its bleeding heart. Not saying that's necessarily a bad thing but it's a fact that compassionate policies have a cost.

by Falls Church on Sep 18, 2012 1:15 pm • linkreport

@ charlie:

Because this is a democracy, and everyone has the same right to access public services as you do. Don't like it? Move to China.

by Matt on Sep 18, 2012 1:22 pm • linkreport

@Matt; there is little correlation between democracy and public access. I mean, after, I can't get into the White House grounds. Or hell, even Congress very easily. And I don't remember seeing homeless at the Pentagon.

In terms of equal protection, I'd argue that even under a strict scrutiny standard it might pass.* I really don't know which standard to apply, but under a rational basis standard it would easily pass muster.

* for instance, preventing homeless from using public buses might not pass strict scrutiny.

by charlie on Sep 18, 2012 1:36 pm • linkreport

A potential renovation of the MLK library is going to be expensive, so it's an important question to ask. I went down to MLK, although it isn't my local library, because somewhat extraordinarily it's the only one that's open on Sundays. When I got there, it was full of unsavory characters, one of whom told me that I couldn't sit at an empty seat, because that was his buddy's seat! I never went back. I don't agree that the library should be fulfilling the mission of a homeless shelter. I think it would be fine to have staff or security guards denying entry to people who are not using the library for legitimate business, just as is the case at the DMV, recreation centers etc.

by renegade09 on Sep 18, 2012 3:52 pm • linkreport

I was in San Francisco recently, and certainly wouldn't use that city as model for anything having to do with treatment of homelessness. There are homeless people not just at obvious places like the library, but really everywhere in the downtown area, to a far, far greater degree than DC (or New York City for that matter). Many of the panhandlers are aggressive and confrontational, and many have obvious mental heath problems. I don't know if this is because San Francisco doesn't do as much to help its homeless population as cities like DC or New York, or if is the opposite - that the city is so tolerant that it acts as a magnet for homeless people. I don't want to see DC become more like San Francisco in terms of homelessness.

by Mike on Sep 18, 2012 3:57 pm • linkreport

@Mike -- you have it backwards.

San Francisco has the worst homeless problem per capital in the country, because of pleasant weather, its counter-cultural reputation acting as a magnet, and its generous social services.

If they, of all cities, are able to reduce the impact of their huge homeless problem on their public library, then by all means we should copy them.

by Matt C on Sep 18, 2012 5:37 pm • linkreport

@Renegade09, how would a security guard at the door be able to decide who is "using the library for legitimate business"? Plenty of homeless people read books in the library, use the restrooms or the computers, sit and wait to meet a friend, etc. So have I, and I'm not homeless.

My feeling is that the library should have clear rules: no taking up more than one seat, no loud or threatening behavior, no damaging books, etc. If you break them, you're out (for the day or longer) or the police get called--regardless of who you are. I've certainly seen non-homeless folks act obnoxiously in the library, whether it's the wealthy-looking lady chatting on her cell phone in the branch near Eastern Market or a bunch of kids roughhousing near the computers in Shaw, and I want them to leave if they can't behave more than I want to stop some homeless guy from spending the afternoon reading magazines.

by sb on Sep 18, 2012 6:22 pm • linkreport

The MLK library's library functions occupy only about a third of the space. The rest is given over to long-term occupancy. You can't kick the people out of the facility, but you can shrink the facility until no room is left for Other Purposes. That's the Mayor's plan in a nutshell, isn't it? To close MLK and move the legitimate library functions into a couple of rooms of leased space?

by Turnip on Sep 18, 2012 7:13 pm • linkreport

Frankly, when something is as far gone as MLK, the best thing can bebe to own it rather than fight it.

I'd support MLK becoming the world's most architecturally important homeless shelter and a monument to how DC cares about its homeless. Shift DC's homeless administrative offices to the site, add a jobs training center but limit the number of people allowed in (and close it at night -- a daytime shelter only) and make it so anyone with bad behavior is banned and must use a different shelter.

Then move MLKs library facilities to a low cost functional building but one thats modernized from the inside. Then put up a plaque at both buildings explaining how and why this came to be.

by Falls Church on Sep 18, 2012 7:18 pm • linkreport


The staff know exactly who the occupiers are but they choose not to stop them from coming in. What we are talking about is 'loitering' or 'creating a public nuisance', which I realize are legal gray areas. I"m not a lawyer, but I'd be interested if there is any precedent for excluding people on these pretexts. Alternatively, is it possible to exclude people of no fixed abode? As another alternative, set a limit that no person may use the library for more than two hours, and then selectively enforce it. As another alternative, limit the size of bags that people can carry to one small bag.

by renegade09 on Sep 18, 2012 7:32 pm • linkreport

How is it, exactly, that DC's museums and rec centers--which are just as public and just as free as the libraries--don't seem to be homeless magnets?

I suspect oboe's suggestion that UPO take the homeless to suburban libraries instead is tongue-in-cheek but since DC contributes roughly 10% of UPO's budget they ought to be able to convince them to stop compounding the problem.

by thm on Sep 18, 2012 10:19 pm • linkreport

I've noticed fewer homeless at MLK recently than in the past. Part of it has probably been the closure of the church next door for construction. From what I understand service orgs for the homeless still regularly drop-off by the library which probably contributes to the population. Contrary to comments here, a lot of homeless people read and make what appears to be constructive use of the computers. The same is true in other inner city branches.

A new library somewhere else in the inner core is likely to face the same issues. There's no reason orgs won't want to drop-off there. It's also likely to have maintenance issues--much like new libraries such as the one in Shaw where either the wrong materials were chosen for some areas or the wrong maintenance has taken place. Replacement of the MLK building is a solution looking for a problem. There is adequate space and the open floor plan can easily be modified.

DC's homeless problems are complicated--an incompetent mental health system doesn't help. When the vans come to Franklin Square I've noticed that they all come from the suburbs and from places with plenty of poverty of their own (Temple Hills, Clinton, Alexandria, Manassas among others). perhaps if they noticed their own backyard, there would be fewer homeless people in DC. Turning the library into less of a destination for homeless orgs would help. So would reshuffling the layout, so that patron services fill the first floor and the lecture space is somewhere else as it would be in a branch. The list goes on. Even if structural issues like community mental health don't get fixed, some incremental things in existing space could make a significant difference.

by Rich on Sep 18, 2012 10:19 pm • linkreport

Wow, I am really disappointed as some of the mean-spirited replies to this well-written article.

A couple of things: 1) Just because someone has really poor hygiene doesn't mean they are homeless. There are a lot of really good intensive outpatient tx teams (ACT teams) helping put chronically homeless with severe and persistent mental illness with co-occurring substance dependence issues in permanent supportive housing. The teams then work extensively to keep them housed and work to help with self care, medication management, money management, job searches etc etc.

2) An incompetent mental health system? You are saying that on what basis? Many folks work very hard for little money (I did it for over seven years). Folks are extremely professional, frequently assaulted at work, and the work is very demanding. In spite of all that, much of the work and models used in DC are considered to be leading the nation. And typically the chronically homeless with SPMI who are placed with an ACT team are able to maintain their apartments at a 90 percent success rate, which is an incredible success. Keep in mind this model was developed because it is much cheaper to provide a housing subsidy adn supportive services to these high users of services than to have them cycle through the extremely expensive use of ERs, psychiatric hospitals and jails.

by H Street LL on Sep 19, 2012 8:04 am • linkreport

1. You establish a public code of conduct to use the library - something very general and non-discriminatory

2. You require anyone who is going to enter and use the library facility to register and obtain a photo library card. You don't have to require an address, but at least you have a name associated with a face. That card then has a barcode that must be swiped for access.

3. If an individual violates the code of conduct, their privilege is revoked for a period of time. Since they must swipe their card, their access will be denied if their privilege has been revoked.

4. For those who are determined to "help the homeless," then one room can be set-aside for non-restricted access and staffed by a social worker.

by EH on Sep 19, 2012 10:15 am • linkreport

From the Halsey article:

Perhaps this dangerous practice could be effectively addressed if cyclists started receiving traffic tickets for running red lights, just as automobile drivers do.

I find this unlikely, given that drivers rarely ever are cited for running stop signs. Granted, cyclists and pedestrians are far more likely to be ticketed in an enforcement operation than drivers, but still, there just aren't enough cops out there.

by oboe on Sep 19, 2012 1:27 pm • linkreport

This library policy reminds me a bit of other issues, least controversially sidewalk cycling.

If you don't want cyclists to ride on the sidewalk then give them somewhere else better to ride.

If you don't want the homeless to hang out at the library, then give them somewhere else better to hang out.

by David C on Sep 19, 2012 4:25 pm • linkreport

@ EH

So who pays for these ID's assuming if just 50% of the Districts population goes to a library just once per year and had to get an ID that would be millions and if you charge for the ID's get ready for a discrimination suit

by kk on Sep 19, 2012 10:27 pm • linkreport

Radical change is needed as the homeless have overtaken MLK, and its been that way for years.

I like the swipe card idea. I like the bus them to Loudon idea even better, especially if its one-way.

Best would be to eliminate the bum-feeding programs and have the cops get really strict on pan-handling, public drunkenness, urination & the like. Thank god we defeated a homeless shelter at Georgia & NH Ave or my hood would be overrun by them.

At least we have winter to drive a few homeless away for a few months. But overall, I have no love for those that disrespect our city. Not even sympathy or empathy.

And to call them patrons? Paleeeze!

by Wayan on Sep 25, 2012 11:07 pm • linkreport

Libraries were not intended to be nor were the buildings designed to function as day shelters and library staff were not trained to deal with those with mental illness and substance abuse issues. Working at the MLK Library is truly like working in a homeless shelter, mental health clinic and substance abuse clinic all in one. There has to be an answer as most of them are not using the library resources. If we are going to allow this to happen to our libraries, shouldn't we open all "public funded" buildings as day shelters? Many libraries have metal detectors and limit the size of bags, similar to the airport, to prevent people from bringing in weapons and food and other items that attract rodents.

by Concerned Librarian on Dec 10, 2014 4:04 pm • linkreport

The reason why the homeless problem has not been resolved at the Martin Luther King junior library is because one does not want to be labeled as a racist or a biggot. As a native Washingtonian, as someone who's been here almost 34 years I know how things work around here. If a homeless person was in there actually reading books, utilizing one of the public programs, not causing any one else problems, and using the library for a legitimate reason; that's one thing. But to camp out in the reading rooms and use the bathrooms as a bathing area is not OK. I remember as a child in the city going to that library we always had to use a locked restroom in the children's room because the homeless ruined every other bathroom. I'm not judging all homeless people but everyone has rights not just them. Everyone using the public library has a legal right to the peaceful enjoyment of the premises. If someone is acting in a manner that violates another's right to the peaceful enjoyment of the premises ;then they should be banned. If the so-called DC city government dealt with many of the homeless harshly at this location, there would be so many backlashes politically and possible lawsuits. I don't even know where to begin to tell you about it. The Martin Luther King library building is actually owned by someone and that is the Government of the District of Columbia. The one who owns that property have a reasonable right to make rules and regulations governing its use. You can't have a library and a homeless shelter in the same building. If anyone refuses to respect the rules then they should be ejected from the premises and possibly be referred to the police department if the infraction warrants a criminal offense. If people want this library to be nice then they need to take a stand. If a patron sees someone acting out then don't put up with their behavior and let them know that it is not acceptable. If people don't take a stand then things will not change and that is one of the key principles of our democracy.

by Manny on Jan 22, 2015 4:37 pm • linkreport

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