Monday, May 2, 2011 | An advocate for the homeless in Orange County is weighing legal action against the city of Santa Ana for denying those without a permanent address the right to a library card.
The policy, which the Santa Ana Library instituted about 18 months ago, discriminates against homeless men and in some respects keeps them from accessing resources that could help them get off the street, says Dwight Smith, who runs the Catholic Worker meal program at the Orange County Civic Center.
The homeless are allowed to vote, he said, “but they’re not allowed to use the computers at the Santa Ana public library, not if they’re men.”
Consider Steve, a homeless man who spends most of his time in and around the library. He, like everyone else, is allowed access to the library and is free to read books and magazines, use the restrooms or just rest in a chair.
But he can’t check out any books or, more importantly, use the library’s computers. This means he can’t check online job openings, communicate with family via email or learn about social service or medical programs for which he may be eligible.
Library officials insist the policy is not meant to be discriminatory, just to keep the library from losing books and to keep its computers available to those who can prove they live in Santa Ana. At one point, overdue books checked out by the homeless had fines that totaled about $7,000, said Library Operations Manager Heather Folmar.
“If something disappears, we can’t afford to replace it,” Folmer said.
And, she said, it wasn’t just homeless men who were a problem. Lawyers who lived in other communities but had cases in the courthouse next to the library were monopolizing the computers and residents couldn’t use them. With only 16 computers for adults and 25 for children, she said residents were being pushed out.
Since the new policy, she said the number of lawyers has dropped.
“The result is this is now the community’s library,” she said, “not the government’s library. Now the neighborhood comes here.”
Smith calls the lawyer issue a “complete red herring.” The fact is, he said, homeless men who live in Santa Ana need access to the computers and should be allowed to watch a movie or browse Facebook, just like anyone else.
Homeless women stand a far better chance of finding temporary housing than men and teenage boys, and therefore are more likely to meet the city’s requirements for a library card.
Orange County has no year-round homeless shelters and the dozens of charities that provide homeless services, including housing, often set requirements that make single men and teen age boys ineligible.
Ironically, the policy is at least partly due to a decision Smith made a few years ago. In addition to the meal program, Smith runs the Catholic Worker’s Isaiah House homeless shelter for women and children in Santa Ana.
Several years ago he stopped allowing men to stay at Isaiah House because some of the problems associated with chronic homelessness, including mental illness and drug and alcohol abuse, became too much for him to continue to handle.
But he let men without any other residence use the south Cypress Avenue Isaiah House address to receive mail. When the library changed its policy, it revoked cards from homeless men using Isaiah House as their address.
Nowhere Else to Go
The high numbers of homeless men who congregate in libraries in Santa Ana and elsewhere is at least partly due to how California and other states deal with the mentally ill.
Until the 1970s, many indigent mentally ill people were housed in state-run facilities. But then it was determined that they were better off living in mainstream society and receiving treatment through neighborhood mental health centers.
But as librarian Julia Anne Murphy wrote in a 1999 article for Current Studies in Librarianship, the mental health centers “never materialized” and “many mentally ill people were thus left to their own devices. Without proper supervision and medication, it was easy for them to fall through the cracks and become homeless wanderers.”
The issue has become more difficult in recent years as libraries in cities like Santa Ana have, become de facto social service centers.
Santa Ana has a high proportion of residents with no home computers or other access to the internet, said Folmar, who frequently helps residents with services that can only be found on the internet. For example, she said, U.S. immigration offices now will make appointments only online.
But what about the homeless men?
“Most of the folks, they’re fine,” said Folmar. “We’re happy to have them here. We do sympathize with them. We really do. Most of them are good folks.”
But, she said, without a residence “they’ve got a Catch 22 and I don’t know how to get them out of it.”
Smith notes that a 1996 court case determined it was illegal to discriminate against the homeless simply because they have nowhere to live. He said he is considering asking lawyers for the Catholic Worker to file suit against the library on behalf of the homeless men.
On a bench outside the library, Steve, who didn’t want to give his last name and two colleagues, discussed how the library is important to them.
“They used to have a lot of really great magazines,” said Steve. “Now, (magazines make up) just like three shelves out of 10.”
But, interrupted his friend, who said to identify him as “Joe Smith,” “basically it’s a good library. They let you use the restroom.”
Another man, who calls himself “T-Rex” had another take on the magazine situation: “A lot of the magazines are left wingers anyway,” he said.
Yet, it was clear that the men cherish the access they do have to the library.
“Don’t write anything bad about them,” said the man who called himself “Joe Smith.” “We need the library.”