Listen: Public library's homeless

MER’s Connie Goldman gathers various opinions of downtown Minneapolis Library patrons and officials on homeless utilizing the library. The use of facility by homeless many times is not to read, but rather to find a public refuge from the outdoor elements. It is not a desired situation for anyone involved, but homeless individuals find few options available in the city.


1973 The Minnesota Education Association School Bell Award, Education Program on Noncommercial Radio category


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[MUSIC PLAYING] CONNIE GOLDMAN: The scene is the Minneapolis Central Downtown Library, December 1972.

ROBERT SIMMONS: And there's too many goons around here. You see, it's only a dropping off place for all the illiterates and all that stuff, see, winos, dinos, and what have you.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Mr. Robert Simmons is the chief of the Minneapolis Downtown Library.

ROBERT SIMMONS: What I really believe about the library is this. I don't care what kind of a person you are, rich or poor or smart or not smart or with a college degree or only four years in grade school. The library, I think, is maybe one of the-- it's one of the last few places that offers this individual a chance to be himself to come and do and think about what he wishes to think about at his speed, in his manner, and as many times as he would like.

I don't want to have any feelings about them. I know the people you mean. I think they're the kind you hate to walk by in the lobby, as a matter of fact. And I'd rather, with all the children that are here, that they weren't here.

But I don't see any effort to dislodge them. They've been there ever since the library was put up. And I have come to accept them as just a fact of life when I enter the library. I have no method of controlling them and have never gotten out of hand. I've never seen anything bad going on, but they are not the greatest in my opinion.

SPEAKER 1: When we walked in there, is these men-- there were these men standing there, and you could smell liquor on them. And it didn't look too good when you walked in. You think it's more of a place to work than a place to come in and see people smelling like they've been drinking and issue like that.

SPEAKER 2: The library moved into their so-called area, which was the park here. And they are the disadvantaged and underprivileged people, have no place to go. And putting the library here displaced them, and they still haven't found any other place to go. It's not a desirable place for them to-- not the best way to use the library facilities, but I see that there is a problem for society and what to do with these peoples.

SPEAKER 3: They scare, ya, jeez. All they do is just stare at you, and you're just scared.

ROBERT SIMMONS: We have a definite problem here, and it's hard to know what to do about this problem. And this is the people who come here and beg and sleep and get drunk and become obnoxious and don't come here for any kind of purpose of reading, but just for gazing around. Now, some of these pieces of behavior are unpleasant, but it isn't the library's fault that there are people like this. And sometimes, it isn't the individual's fault entirely that he's like this.

It's a social problem that this city has in common with a lot of other cities. We have inebriates. We have perverts. We have guys that just-- and women too, but it's mostly men apparently-- who just don't have a niche anywhere. OK, I said before that we want the library to be a place open to people, and we do.

And these people are all right, as long as they are not violating somebody else's rights. And this has been a real problem with us, when to say, no, you can't use the library and when to say, OK, come on in. We know that you don't want to do much here but just maybe sit for an hour or two, that you really don't want to read anything.

So we have some guidelines as to what's proper behavior and what's not. And they are very general guidelines. But when these people get out of order and stray from them, we remind them.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: For the past two years, officer William Dunstone of the Minneapolis Police Department has spent his 40-hour week stationed at the Central Library.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: I try to keep the arcade clear of undesirable people that bother other people. And naturally, there's homeless men that have no place to go in the city, and especially in the cold weather.

The library is a public facility, and they do have restroom facilities. And they're probably the only place in the city or one of the few places where these homeless people can go. And I wish there would be some type of facility to have a place for these people to go and read and have restroom facilities. It seems a shame that they have to be around the public library, but they have every right as any other citizen.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: One library patron detailed for me his opinions on the problem.

SPEAKER 4: I see somebody, like maybe a drunk or something, coming my way. I just avoid them. What else can you do? It's silly to talk to them or most of them. They stink and drink, and they don't appeal to me anyhow. [CHUCKLES] So I avoid them.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: What do you think the library can do about that situation?

SPEAKER 4: They obviously don't come here to read. Or I thought at times, they should have rent a little room on First Street North or somewhere, basement or anything, place where they can go and sit down and drink. But they don't belong here, not in the lobby, not around in front or inside. They don't come here to read. You can see it.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: It's a problem of our city, though. There is nowhere for them to go, and this is a public building.

SPEAKER 4: It's true. It's a public building. It's true. But so is the courthouse a public building, but you don't see that there, you see? They're looking for a place to go. And I still think might cost a few dollars, whoever pays for it, like on First Street North or somewhere away from people [CHUCKLES] because they're the type of people-- they don't care.

They just want to drink and sit down or look for their own kind. Yeah, they're, in other words, not my kind of people. I'm not prejudiced or anything but-- because to me people are people, black or white. But they're-- those people just want to drink, and you can see yourself they're dirty, yeah. [CHUCKLES]

Because it is a public building and because we welcome all comers and because we don't have very harsh restrictions, a lot of people come in here who have no place else to go. And they are society's misfits, I guess. Maybe that's a harsh term, but they are society's misfits. And so where do they fit?

Well, they can come here, as long as, the old phrase, "they behave themselves." When they cease to behave themselves, we have to ask them to please go and come back when you can. But it is a problem, and it's not only our problem. It's a problem in all the big cities in the United States.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Further comments from Officer Dunstone on the situation.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: They just have to wander from place to place, like the bus depot to the health center to the library to the different flophouses that are left and the hallways. And they just don't have any place. And every place they do go, there's always so many that will complain about them and call the police. And they're pushed from pillar to post.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Several years of building and development in the lower end of the Minneapolis loop have left these people placeless. The flophouses in the Washington Avenue bars are gone. The Gateway knoll is gone, and the Milwaukee Depot is closed. So they sit in the public library. And indeed, the library is a public place.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: Well, most of the regulars that come in-- they've been around for many years, and I know most of the fellows that are alcoholics and are wandering around the streets and the public places and the buildings. There isn't much we can actually do to them as far as arresting them.

There's no loitering laws or vagrancy laws or things like that, so there isn't much you can-- but if they misbehaving, well, naturally we have to ask them to leave. Or if they refuse to leave, we can possibly charge them with breach of the peace or something like that. Just yesterday, I had a couple that were married.

And they were both intoxicated, and I sent them to the detoxification center by the ambulance. And they were back the next day. And these people-- I've been in contact with them for 10, 15 years. And it's just over and over again, as far as their drinking problems.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: Officer Dunstone explained how changes in the Minneapolis drunkenness law that introduced a detoxification center into the city helped the problem in some ways while making his job more difficult in others. He explained that there aren't the facilities at the detox center for all the drunks on the street and that they can no longer simply be arrested and jailed.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: That's a very simple plan to arrest these drunks years ago and get them away from the public eye. Of course, that didn't solve the problem to the individual alcoholic. But it did get them off the street and occasionally in the workhouse, where they were able to dry out and rehabilitate themselves a little because they spent more time in the workhouse.

With the repeal of the drunkenness law, it's really put a burden on the police officers because it's very difficult to arrest anybody for bothering people or just waving their arms or yelling a little bit. We have a breach of peace law, but you have to be real violent before you can almost charge them with breach of the peace. So we use the drunkenness law years ago to cover most of the problems of the alcoholics.

I feel that the detoxification center is a good idea. It's a step in the right direction, but I don't believe Minneapolis is equipped for that step yet. But I'm sure they're working on it to have larger facilities and more personnel for the detoxification center. So I'm sure it is a right step in the right direction because the old method of the workhouse-- it worked to get the people off the street, but it wasn't a permanent solution to the alcoholic problem.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: Officer Dunstone cautioned that the public library not be pictured as an alcoholic center or a trouble spot.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: It actually isn't as bad as it sounds. But there are problems, and we're trying to do the best we can. And that's why they have a police officer at the library to take care of these problems. And I hope it's going to improve, and I'm sure it will improve.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: During a busy day at the downtown library, these people are mostly ignored, kept separate by their own wish, and generally passed by. And that's really the best way for a library patron to treat the situation, implied Dunstone. Then it just avoids that abrasive contact that could come.

A librarian that I spoke with made the observation that people really don't want to see the social and human problems that are reflected by these people, and Dunstone said that he thinks that the average person that comes to the library wishes the police department would just do something and clean it up and so they wouldn't have to see any of it. Well, perhaps it won't hurt us to look. Perhaps it won't even hurt us to see.

WILLIAM DUNSTONE: Well, I think when I was a kid, I always expected a library to be a very quiet place and a place where only people went to read books or pick up books. But because it is a public building and facilities for people to come in and sit down or loiter or read books, well, it does attract all types of individuals. And naturally, any public building is open to all types of people, and which we do have in the city.

CONNIE GOLDMAN: I guess that's pretty much what Robert Simmons, chief of the Downtown Minneapolis Library meant when he said, the library is one of the last few places the individual has a chance to be himself, to come and do and think about what he wishes at his speed, in his manner, and as many times as he would like. It's a place to be very private while, outwardly, being very public. This is Connie Goldman.


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