Her bags and luggage in tow, Chelsea Harlan left the Salvation Army Harbor Light shelter and headed to the downtown Minneapolis Central Library, the soaring, $135 million glass and steel structure designed by internationally renowned architect Cesar Pelli.
Harlan visits three or more times a week to check her e-mail, Facebook account and log onto an online course she's taking. "I have homework to do," she said Friday.
Harlan, 26, is one of hundreds of homeless and poor people who flood the library daily, drawn by the warmth, computers and open space.
In recent weeks, the library has even started setting aside space for advocates to meet with the homeless twice a month and connect them with services offered in Hennepin County.
But as the number of homeless grows, so do the challenges, prompting ramped-up security, additional training for library staff and tougher enforcement of rules against sleeping and alcohol use. Last year, 1,321 people were asked to leave the library, more than twice the number ejected the year before.
"I put in a policy if you are going to be in the atrium, you sit upright and stay awake," said J.R. Hunter, the library's security supervisor. Alcohol use is down, he said, thanks to increased patrolling in bathrooms.
Library officials say they want to keep a civil, pleasant atmosphere. "The library is a place for everybody," library manager Betsy Williams said. To those who complain about the homeless patrons, she advises keeping an open mind about city life: "If you live and work in the urban center, it feels a little naive for people to say, 'I feel uncomfortable.'"
A national issue
Williams estimated that a "preponderance" of the 1 million-plus visitors to the Central Library each year are the "poor and underserved" and her sense is that the numbers are increasing, a reflection of the poor economy. "It's a national issue. We are not any different than any library in the urban core," she said.
"We are trying to figure out how to help the staff become more sensitive to the condition of homelessness [and] feel more comfortable about interacting with homeless people. We have a real strong ethical response to those issues."
The Hennepin County Library system sponsored four workshops about homelessness in 2011 and another four workshops in 2012, at the downtown library and at other sites.
"There is such a high rate of homelessness at the library," says Derek Holt, shelter manager at Our Saviour's Housing in Minneapolis. "We want to have a presence there."
Members of the outreach staff of St. Stephen's Human Services, also in Minneapolis, visit the Central Library almost daily to talk to homeless people and connect them with services, says David Jeffries, the organization's director of single-adult programs.
"There are roughly about 700 people staying in single-adult shelters" who are asked to leave each morning, says Jeffries. "You have a large amount of people in the winter with no place to go." He estimated that 300 to 400 homeless people visit the Central Library sometime during the day.
Bathroom drinkers nabbed
When Hunter, the security supervisor, started working at the library in April 2011, he found many homeless people sleeping in the atrium, waiting for the library to open at 10 a.m. He said there was a "huge population of people coming here because they wanted to sleep. ... It didn't look good." Working with shelter providers, he said, he explained that the library cannot be a place to sleep.
He said that janitors found beer cans and bottles in the bathroom, so he asked them to log what time they found them. "We were able to pinpoint bathrooms where [people] were going to drink at 1:15 p.m.," the apparent high point of drinking during the day. Security workers started catching the drinkers, poured out their alcohol and ordered them to leave the library. "Alcohol usage has plummeted" since then, Hunter said.
He said he also worked with the staff on conflict-resolution strategies, which has led to a firm but friendly approach as security personnel walked through the library.
One of the reasons that the library has become such a magnet is that 300 computers were installed when the Central Library opened in 2006, up from 100 at the old library.
The computers are concentrated in an open space at the center of each of the library's four floors, 75 to a floor. On several days last week, almost all were in use.
Teens add to the noisy mix
Two librarians per floor must handle questions at the desk and still monitor the visitors, trying to keep order and the noise down.
"There's no library in the country that's quiet anymore," says Hunter. "The Internet changed the total tone and use of the library. It brought a whole new customer base. Teens and youth did not flock to the library; they flocked to the mall. Now the library is filled with youth, using the computer."
People are watching movies, playing games, listening to music on earphones. It's a recipe for interaction and occasional problems.
"As manager of the building, I've asked staff to be more diligent about behavior," said Williams. "When [patrons] are doing something that is not appropriate, [we] ask them to stop and if they don't stop, either ask them one more time or call security."
Jared Jowett, 21, called the library staff "decent people" and said he doesn't cause them any trouble.
Jowett slept at Harbor Light on Thursday night and was checking his e-mail at the library late Friday afternoon, a large backpack sitting beside him.
His next stop, he said, would be an intersection where he would be holding up a sign, begging for money. He said he had no idea where he was going to sleep on Friday night.
Randy Furst • 612-673-4224