LIBRARY SECURITY: The Challenge of Homelessness and library access

A couple times each year I get together with a friend who lives in a typical middle-class neighborhood towards the outskirts of Portland Oregon and we have lunch or sometimes just a cup of coffee. Because I was planning to stop by the downtown public library after our lunch, I suggested we meet in front of the library and walk to a nearby deli. I was a little taken aback when he said he didn’t like going near the library because too many “weirdo’s and creepy people” hang around the library. We met someplace else.

Who are these weird and creepy people?

After lunch I walked to the library alone and asked myself: Who are these ‘weird and creepy’ people? I had never noticed them so I sat on a street bench near the front of the library for about 30 minutes and did some people watching.

As I sat on the bench I gazed across the street and spotted a homeless man shuffling down the street and slowly pushing a shopping cart full of what looked like his worldly possessions. A few minutes later I noticed a young man in his 20’s standing alone and muttering something to a wall. After talking to the wall for a few minutes, he crossed the street and disappeared out of sight. Later, I saw a disheveled older looking gentleman carrying a crinkled paper shopping bag walk past me and go into the library. He was followed a few minutes later by a middle aged man proudly wearing a sport jacket that looked like it came straight from the Goodwill reject bin. About 10 minutes later I saw two younger girls wearing black gothic looking leather jackets, sporting florescent red and green hair and numerous facial piercings, walk into the library.

During my mere 30 minutes on the bench I noticed a few more people who looked like they had seen better days or whose attire was not mainstream. Some went into the library and some just passed by on the street and our eyes never met. I guess these were the weird and creepy people that made my friend uneasy.

I had been coming to the library for decades and just never thought anything of it. Admittedly, these people were a little “different” and some were even a bit strange, but they didn’t seem real creepy or too weird to me. Maybe that was because I grew up in a very modest neighborhood far removed from the well manicured lawns of “nice” neighborhoods and there were always “different” looking or acting people around. Or, maybe it was because during my 30+ years working as a police officer I had daily interaction with all types of people and just became accustomed to being around people of all stripes. But, I can also understand how someone who is not accustomed to being around “street people” or people with multiple body piercings and unnatural hair colors, could feel a bit uneasy frequenting the area.

Let’s face it. Libraries have always attracted some odd people and all across the country more and more public libraries are growing increasingly concerned about homeless, mentally ill people, or people who just look weird, scaring away mainstream library users. And, as I know from my years in law enforcement, mixed in with the harmless homeless and mentally ill and people with unnatural hair coloring, are some genuinely offensive and volatile individuals. Trying to sort out who is just a down-and-out homeless person, a harmless mentally ill person, or someone who is genuinely dangerous, has become a genuine safety and security issue for library management and security personnel.

Keeping “undesirable” people from public libraries.

Communities have addressed this challenge in many different and sometimes creative ways. Some have taken actions to discourage the homeless and non-mainstream people from accessing the library. I guess the theory is that if you make it uncomfortable enough these people will go someplace else – maybe down by the rail road tracks or out of sight under a bridge.

In Dallas Texas, for example, a business group quietly removed street benches around the city’s Central Library in an effort to discourage the homeless from congregating in the area. And in San Francisco, known as a bastion of tolerance and “progressive” thinking, there have been reports of public workers doing early morning “cleanings” and spraying homeless people with water hoses to discourage them from congregating near the library.

Wilmington Delaware has even gone a step further requiring all those who enter the library to display a state issued photographic identification card or a Delaware library card. No Delaware ID or library card – keep out!

Other communities have gone in the opposite direction. In Minneapolis where bone-chilling weather causes hundreds of homeless people to stream into the library as soon as the doors open in the morning, the library has dedicated space where advocates can meet with the homeless and connect them with county services. And the Alachua County Library District in Florida welcomes the homeless and even hosts Monday movies for the homeless – sometimes with popcorn!

My thought is that trying to roust the homeless, the mentally ill, and other assorted “odd-balls” from the streets surrounding libraries is not the best public policy for a number of reasons. I say this as a former police Lieutenant who once supervised a squad of officers whose job was to wake up sleeping homeless people and keep them moving all night long. It didn’t work then, and it does not work now.

Likewise, restricting who may use a library based upon their appearance or level of perceived “weirdness” or forcing these types of people out of a particular area is not a good practice, and it is illegal. For those of you who enjoy reading legal cases, I recommend Armstrong v. District of Columbia Public Library, 154 F. Supp. 2d 67 (2001), Brinkmeier v. Freeport, 1993 U.S. Dist. LEXIS 9255 (N.D. Ill. July 2, 1993), et al.

Clearly, if someone is breaking the law or is violating reasonably construed, specific, and uniformly enforced library rules, they can to be arrested, escorted out of the library, or banned from the library depending on the circumstances. In some states, municipalities even have legal authority to exclude individuals causing trouble from defined public places – including public streets, parks, sidewalks, and the like. For a good discussion of this practice, refer to


Ultimately, the job of library security is to maintain an environment that is welcoming to all patrons. In balancing the rights and needs of all library patrons, clear policies should be established to make it clear to patrons how they can enjoy the library while keeping it a place that everyone feels welcome in. While some of the challenges of library security are unique like those discussed above, other security issues are also important in keeping a library safe. In future articles I will examine some of the other security and safety issues facing libraries – theft and loss of books and library materials, internet access and pornography, bomb threats, etc.

Building an effective security plan to deal with these challenges requires planning and implementation. Care should be taken to maximize the accessibility to the public while minimizing the risk of disruptive situations. Some best practices include:

* Prepare a written security policy by working with security experts and library staff
* Implement the security plan
* Identify likely emergencies and create a response plan. Practice this plan with staff.
* Train library staff on how to implement the security policy
* Establish and publish patron rules, regulations, and policies
* Implement preventive measures to help eliminate physical building security weaknesses
* Periodically survey and reevaluate security needs

George W. Babnick, JD is a 34 year law enforcement veteran with an extensive background in training, school policing, criminal and administrative investigations, supervision and management, and criminal forensics. He recently retired as a Captain in the Portland Oregon Police Bureau where he managed the Forensic Evidence Division. He holds criminal justice degrees from Portland Community College and Portland State University and a law degree from Northwestern California University School of Law, Sacramento California. He is the author of articles on law enforcement and security, investigations, supervision and management, and risk management related to these subjects. Nothing in any article is intended to or should be construed as legal advice. Persons needing legal advice should seek the counsel of an attorney.
He can be reached via his blog:

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