Floriberta Villanueva walks over to the Santa Ana Public Library with her youngest son, Jesus, whenever he needs help with his homework. But she only feels comfortable at the library during daylight hours.
Even then, she does not always feel comfortable.
“The homeless have always been my main concern. Sometimes my son can’t even concentrate because he keeps staring at them,” Villanueva said. “Or sometimes they will say bad words, and since I don’t know English, I don’t know what they are saying, but Jesus is laughing.”
Many other parents who use the library share Villanueva’s concerns – yet another unintended consequence of downtown’s Civic Center serving as the congregation point for scores of homeless people.
Families who come to the library report seeing aggressive acts among some homeless people, others who barely have any clothes on, or those who smell like marijuana.
Maria Espinoza, who like Villanueva is a mother of two, finds the scenery disturbing and dangerous. “Sometimes I feel very vulnerable because I have my kids. I not only have to worry about my safety, but the safety of my children,” Espinoza said.
Meanwhile, homeless people and their advocates feel that they are being unfairly targeted, and point out that the library is a rare safe haven and one of the few resources available to them in their quest to get off the streets.
A Controversial Solution
Santa Ana officials have made an effort to resolve the situation by re-opening a library entrance facing Civic Center Drive that has been closed for 10 years. This means that families do not have to enter through the doors facing the county’s Walk of Honor, where the homeless people gather.
Espinoza is very grateful for the new entrance. She and her children will be able to take a shorter route from the parking structure into the library without encountering homeless people.
Yet she is still not satisfied.
“The new entrance is great, but the director said he was going to do more. He should take resources outside for them, so we can be more comfortable and my children don’t have to stand next to homeless people that smell like marijuana,” said Espinoza.
However, as a public facility, the library cannot deny access to homeless people despite the many complaints from mothers like Villanueva and Espinoza.
Gerardo Mouet, Santa Ana’s Parks and Recreation director, said he tries to make the library serve the needs of families as well as homeless people. He cited two examples – the library’s Higher Education Center, an area upstairs set aside for work on college applications, and the Veterans Resource Fair.
“The homeless community has always been an issue, but we cannot deny our services to them. We are a public facility,” Mouet said. “But, if they do not behave according to our rules of conduct, then we have the right to escort people out when, for example, they get very angry and start offending others.”
Charges of Discrimination
Under the rules, a visitor cannot bring shopping carts, sleeping bags, bed rolls, blankets, or other large items and the visitor must be fully clothed with shoes at all times. Visitors are also not allowed to bathe or wash clothes in the restrooms. Reckless or disturbing behavior has decreased as a result of the rules, according to principal librarian Patty Lopez.
However, such rules make some of the homeless people feel segregated or sometimes victimized. One issue is the acquisition of a library card, which offers greater access to library resources.
In order to obtain a library card, a visitor must show proof of residence in Santa Ana. Without it, the card costs $45. If a homeless visitor is based in a temporary shelter, he can use that address to obtain a library card.
Addresses are required for billing purposes in case a book is stolen or damaged.
Without a library card, homeless people are not able to check out books or use the main computers with chairs. But if they have an ID, they can borrow tablets donated to the library by the city and use them at a high table without chairs. Standing up lessens the amount of time someone uses the tablet.
William Ramirez, a veteran who served in the Iraq war who is now homeless, has a library card because he uses the address of a temporary group home. He emphasizes how many of his friends do not have a library card or an ID to use the services of the library.
“Going to the library calms me. I have a tendency to be very aggressive and throw a punch. So I usually go to the library to read Tom Clancy books because I like reading about military,” said Ramirez.
Whenever Ramirez goes to the library, he feels like he is not welcomed. People stare at him and it makes him feel very uneasy and unstable.
Igmar Rodas, the founder of the homeless advocacy group Stop Abusing People’s Derechos, is listens to the frustrations Ramirez and his friends might have. Whenever a homeless person gets escorted out of the library unfairly, Rodas reports the incident to the homeless community.
Although Rodas understands the familial perspective, he still believes it is a form of discrimination against homeless people. Rodas believes the new entrance is making the homeless people seem more like criminals to avoid, instead of human beings.
“The opening of the new entrance is just another solution to ignore the homeless. It’s not getting to the main issue of how to help that community,” said Rodas.
Kenia Torres is a part of Voice of OC’s youth media program and a UC Irvine student majoring in Literary Journalism. She grew up in Santa Ana.