DOVER — They are the first people to arrive at the Dover Public Library when the doors swing open each day and the last people to leave.
Margery Cyr, director of the library, said the group isn’t a bunch of hardworking students who can’t get enough studying done; rather, it is the city’s homeless population.
Like thousands of public libraries throughout the United States, Dover’s library has become a safe place for the homeless to catch a little bit of rest and escape from the outside elements.
Dover opened its $20.8 million library in September 2012 at 35 Loockerman Plaza.
At that time, being the biggest homeless shelter in the city was obviously not the primary goal. But with an ever-increasing homeless population, the library is often their best option in which to go.
“We’re a public library and we provide services to all people without judgment,” Ms. Cyr said. “Socio-economic status doesn’t matter to us. Gender doesn’t matter to us.
The Acceptable Behavior Policy features 22 distinct rules for people to follow when they are in the library.
The first two of those rules would appear to directly target the homeless population, particularly the second one that states, “Any activity that is inconsistent with ordinary library purposes is not allowed. Some examples of this are: Bathing, washing laundry, sleeping for any extended time, loitering and panhandling.”
Steven Hall, a 53-year-old homeless man from Rehoboth Beach, said the way that homeless people are treated at the library depends on how they act once they are inside its doors.
“It depends upon you, because there are some that do come in and they don’t treat this like a library,” Mr. Hall said. “They abuse the privileges and that makes them not very welcome.
“However, I use this opportunity to have internet access and use it for job searching and house hunting and I have meetings here trying to find housing and so forth. I do a lot here.”
He then added, “Unfortunately, many of us (in Dover), way before I even came up here, abuse the privileges. To them it’s a place to reside, to get warm, to meet.”
Ms. Cyr said she believes the perception of the homeless people in the library is different from the reality.
“We have some issues but our issues aren’t solely related to the homeless population,” she said. “We have issues with library customers that (have homes). We have issues with adults and we have issues with teens, so we have issues.
“I think the general public has the perception that all of the library’s issues are because of the homeless population and that just isn’t true.”
However, some of the members of the homeless community who access services at the Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing said they have seen many members of their population get kicked out of the library for issues such as being argumentative and disruptive, as well as having sex and doing heroin in the bathrooms.
Master Cpl. Mark Hoffman, spokesman for the Dover Police Department, acknowledged that police were called to the library after being informed two men were having sex on Sept. 6, 2016. He could not say whether they were homeless men.
The police have received 28 calls for service from the library since Jan. 1. Going back to last August, police have responded to the library for nine disorderly conduct instances, nine thefts, two fights, a pair of harassments and three thefts, among other issues.
The issues included both the homeless and those with homes.
Master Cpl. Hoffman said the presence of a Dover Police cadet at a desk near the front door helps to quell many issues. “The cadets alleviate a lot of the problems that he have at the library just with their presence alone, but we still get calls (for disturbances),” he said.
Several homeless people said they don’t condone such illegal and disruptive behaviors.
Latisha Ribolla, a homeless woman from Brooklyn, N.Y., doesn’t feel welcome inside the library.
“The library doesn’t help us out … they’re mean,” she said. “They treat us like we’re trash at the library.
“They say we make too much noise and when it’s cold they don’t want us in there. They took some chairs and tables and vending machines out so we can’t use it — they just act weird to us. They don’t want us hanging in there.”
Ms. Cyr said that is far from being the case.
“I think the homeless situation is terribly tragic and a difficult situation that’s not very well understood and yet it’s a reality of today’s world in most communities across America,” said Cyr. “They can rest here, as long as they’re not disturbing other people and preventing other people from using the library.
“I believe that our staff has great empathy for anyone who has to spend hours outside in the snow, or in the freezing air, or in the rain, or even the blazing heat, for that matter.”
Ms. Cyr added that the library’s Acceptable Use Policy says, “All members of the public are welcome at the Dover Public Library. We expect library staff to treat customers of the library with courtesy.
“In turn, we expect library customers to behave in the library with dignity and in such a way that their actions do not interfere with the functions of the library or with the convenience and comfort of other customers.”
Dover Interfaith Mission for Housing Chairwoman Jeanine Kleimo said accommodating the homeless at the library and being sensitive to users is on the nonprofit group’s radar.
She said having lockers available to the homeless could help the situation at the library. She noted a mother and daughter who consistently have more personal belongings with them every time they are seen, and acknowledged that those homeless citizens who are loaded down and in need of a bath are going to cause issues for library users.
There are a few lockers available at the interfaith mission’s resource center on Forrest Avenue, but more would be beneficial, she said.
The mentality of not wanting to leave anything behind and keeping it on one’s person is common among the homeless. “There’s a feeling that it’s going to be lost,” she said.
In its mission statement, The American Library Association said it promotes equal access to information for all people and recognizes the need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults and families in America.
It goes on to read, “These people are affected by a combination of limitations, including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services.
“Therefore, it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.”
Ms. Cyr said the Dover library doesn’t have any programs directed at the homeless, although a couple of libraries in the state are doing that.
“We have a very robust activity schedule and the members of the homeless community are welcome to participate in any of those activities,” she said. “They are always welcome.”
Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at email@example.com.