During the past election, downtown Spokane's public library became a flashpoint. Nadine Woodward, who won a tight race to become mayor, pointed to drug use in the library bathrooms and a fight between a homeless man and a library security guard to argue that the library was unsafe. She even indicated that the library should consider banning homeless people until the drug problems were addressed. Woodward recently told KXLY she regretted making those comments.
But come February, the debate over homelessness and the library is about to change: The downtown library will be closed for two years for renovation, and a much smaller temporary library will be reopening at the STA Plaza. So what happens to the homeless people who use the downtown library for shelter when that shelter goes away?
At least some of the patrons, of course, could simply relocate to the temporary library at the Plaza.
"We're continuing to do our normal operations, which means any person who's cold can be at the STA Plaza," STA spokesman Brandon Rapez-Betty says. "If someone needs to come inside and be warm, it's a public building."
The entire second floor of the STA Plaza will be converted into the temporary library. That's 9,800 square feet, larger than the Hillyard Library. Yet, Rapez-Betty also notes that about half of that space is office space. Much of the rest of that space will be dedicated to art exhibits, a conference meeting room, self-service checkout kiosks, and collections of high-circulating books, DVDs and CDs.
On the one hand, there will be about 8-10 computer terminals, often spots that homeless people use to check their email, conduct research and update their social media accounts. But that's one-third of the number of computer spaces currently available at the downtown location. But these computers will be time-limited — capped at 30 minutes per person.
Council President-elect Breean Beggs brings up another issue: What about people who have been banned from the STA Plaza, but not the library? Right now, according to Rapez-Betty, 146 people currently aren't allowed to set foot in the Plaza because of a violation of the law or of Plaza policies.
Where will they go to get warm? Beggs asks.
"It's on our radar," says city spokeswoman Kirstin Davis. "Our [Community Housing and Human Services] staff have already met with library staff and are also coordinating with homeless services providers to come up with alternatives when libraries are closing."
Andrew Chanse, executive director of the Spokane Public Library, says he's been in frequent conversations with the city about how to prepare those who rely on the downtown library for shelter for the transition.
"That's something we have talked about in the months leading up," Chanse says. "Can we get some outreach in this facility to really connect with people to make them aware of what their alternatives are going to be when this facility closes?"
But right now, it's not entirely clear to the library what those alternatives will be.
"I know there's been some controversy over what those options are the last couple of weeks with the city funding," Chanse says. "I think the city is still trying to land on their strategy for what to do for this season."
In the long term, Beggs says, there needs to be a daytime homeless shelter for men.
"If we did, I believe that will ease some of the problems that people report on both sides of the activists on this issue," he says.
City Councilwoman Kate Burke, one of the most ardent voices on the council about homelessness, worries that history will repeat itself. She thinks back to last year, when the closure of the House of Charity's 24/7 shelter resulted in the streets being flooded with homeless people, sparking community backlash.
"What happens is the businesses call in and say, 'Where did all the homeless people come from?'" Burke says. "You can't just expect people to go away. They still need a place to go." ♦