When the rights of the many outweigh the rights of the few:

the “legitimate” versus the homeless patron in the public library.


Julie Murphy


Dozens of articles have been written about how to cope with the difficulties that problem patrons present to librarians and library workers. The majority of these articles include homeless people in that category. Homeless people can be smelly and mentally disturbed, but what many people forget is that non-homeless people can also be smelly and mentally disturbed. Because more affluent patrons claim that they pay the taxes that support the library, librarians are keen to hear their complaints about the growing numbers of homeless people in the library. Librarians must deal with these complaints on a daily basis, and must deal with the presence and aroma of the homeless as well, leading to lowered morale and less-inviting working conditions. But librarians are also conscious of the need to serve all patrons equally and provide equal access to the library itself. The crucial questions are: When do the rights of the homeless really impinge upon the rights of other patrons? Are unsightliness and odor enough reason to bar homeless people from the library?


Shuman (1996) provides several arguments in favor of and against homeless people. s access to the library. Arguments in favor of reduced access include the following: The library should maintain a pleasant atmosphere conducive to reading and studying, and unwashed persons make it hard for others to use the library. Since many homeless people are often mentally ill, they may pose a concern for public safety. Finally, library staff are forced to work with and stay in the vicinity of offensive and smelly people, which is unduly stressful.


Surprisingly, these arguments are echoed by several authors of articles researched for this paper. Many of these articles were published in the late-1970s and early-1980s when deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill, coupled with decreased public housing, resulted in an increased population of the homeless. Some of the articles were written in response to the 1992 Kreimer decision by librarians who felt as though they were no longer in control of the library workplace.


Despite the reasons listed above, others, particularly Shuman (1996), present arguments in favor of library access by the homeless. Not only do homeless people have the same rights as others, but it is illegal to treat them differently, and libraries that do so may be vulnerable to lawsuits (Shuman, 1996). Furthermore, the library can provide a place for the mentally ill to interact with normal society.  The library can also provide an important community service by identifying and connecting homeless people with the proper social service agencies - even working actively with those agencies to create safe spaces for the homeless to occupy. Since many homeless people are also mentally ill, and mental illness is equivalent to a physical illness or disability, it could be argued that homeless people need to be accorded rights under the Amercians with Disabilities Act (ADA). This point is often overlooked when dealing with mentally ill people, due to our society’s tendency to discount the validity of mental illness as a medical problem.


There are myriad solutions that the library can enact, stemming from two points of view. More conservative, reactive solutions can include training workers to deal with homeless people and defining clear codes of conduct that help both worker and patron understand appropriate library behavior. This will perhaps eliminate the tendency for people to equate appearance with behavior. Positive, proactive, solutions include ensuring collection development in information areas important to the homeless, creating space for the homeless within and without the library, and educating the public on their lives.


Some definitions: Who are the homeless and how did they get that way?


Who is a homeless person? Many people can be homeless, yet not pose the problems that the typical homeless person in a public library poses. Anne Turner (1993) identifies the types of homeless people found in the library as "street people", who are

raunchy looking folks...who tend to travel with most of their worldly possessions in trash bags or bedrolls, wear very ragged clothes, often haven’t bathed lately, and may or may not exhibit various eccentric or antisocial behaviors indicative of mental illness, alcoholism, or other substance abuse. The defining characteristic of the street person…is appearance. (pp. 31-32). 


About one-third of the homeless are mentally ill and about one-half abuse alcohol or drugs (Curry, 1996). Thirty-three percent are veterans (Homelessness, 1992). Estimates of their numbers range from 2 million by the U.S. Department of Health to over 4 million by the National Coalition for the Homeless (Venturella, 1991). The fact that the homeless are a changing and transient population makes them a difficult population for whom to plan and implement library services (Zipkowitz, 1996).


During the mid-1970s, mental hospitals discharged patients in record numbers, partly as a response to calls for patients. rights, and partly to save costs. A network of community mental health centers was planned to provide services to these people, but the centers never materialized (Salter and Salter, 1996). Many mentally ill people were thus left to their own devices. Without proper supervision and medication, it was easy for them to fall though the cracks and become homeless wanderers. At the same time, more than a million housing facilities were demolished in the 1980s, federal low-income housing support was slashed from $32 billion to $7.5 billion, and rent subsidies were curtailed (Homelessness, 1992). Many homeless people started out as the working poor who earned barely enough for food and shelter, but lost their ability to pay for these essentials due to a financial crisis involving overwhelming medical costs or other debts. Once out on the streets, homeless people are less a problem than victims of other people who are problems, as the homeless become targets for theft and physical and sexual abuse. As Shuman (1996) explains,

What [the homeless] frequently share is a syndrome of conditions from which they cannot easily escape...the homeless get hungry, they experience too much of cold or heat, dampness and dryness, they experience fear of others and anxiety for their safety...a sense of hopelessness is pervasive among [them]…(pp. 11-12).

It is no surprise that these unfortunates end up at the library, a safe, warm shelter where, for at least part of the day, they can be assured of physical safety.


Why the ”regular” patrons don’t care about the homeless


In an editorial in the Christian Science Monitor entitled, "Libraries for All" (1991), the editors argue that as we become desensitized to world tragedies and social problems in general, we experience “compassion fatigue”. Expanding on this idea, Silver (1996) suggests that  “the public is weary of the demands this segment of population places on social services and health agencies, and a growing backlash toward the homeless is evident” (p. 20).


But what the average person tends to deny is how close he or she may be to being homeless himself or herself. Millions of people comprise the working poor and may only be a few paychecks away from homelessness. A relatively small financial setback can send the working poor into the streets, in some cases with little recourse.


Unfortunately, because of “compassion fatigue”, it is hard to educate patrons about the homeless’ similarities, let alone their civil rights. In response, Turner (1993) proposes an equitable enforcement of codes of conduct and continuous community involvement by the library. The key philosophy underscoring this strategy is promoting access by all individuals to the library itself, regardless of economic status, appearance, or living situation.


Access: what we are (supposedly) all about


Venturella (1991) notes that historically, libraries began as agencies for social change, with the goal of providing equal access to information. On the other hand, real conflict exists among the rights of the homeless and the rights of other patrons and library workers. Some homeless patrons smell so bad that they provoke nausea. Sleeping homeless patrons may snore loudly enough to disturb contemplation. For hygienic reasons, patrons may feel uncomfortable handling materials that the homeless have handled. As a result, many librarians classify the homeless as “problem patrons”.


It is important, however, to distinguish between a truly problematic patron and the nuisance of a homeless one. Shuman (1989) gives an uncomfortably broad definition of a problem patron as “anyone who is doing anything illegal, immoral, annoying, or upsetting to anyone else” (p. 6). (Just as there are many potentially upsetting books in the library, so can there be many patrons whose appearance is upsetting.)   Shuman (1996) goes on to explain that “a problem patron is anyone who visits the library and either breaks or flouts existing rules, or presents an actual or potential threat to other persons within the building” (p. 6).


Clearly, then, any patron can potentially become a problem. Because of their disheveled appearance, however, it is easier to assume that the homeless person is a problem. Another assumption is that because a homeless person may be mentally ill and acting a little odd, such behavior is itself cause for concern. Zipkowitz (1996) addresses the social ramifications of odd behavior when describing the concept of the implied social contract in our society. As children, we are taught the rudiments of proper behavior. We know when it would appear strange to mutter to ourselves, cry out loud, or appear unkempt. When this contract is breached, many people react in fear of the unknown. Mentally ill people often behave outside of the social contract, provoking our fear and thus becoming a problem. Because we don’t know how to respond to the disheveled homeless person who is quietly muttering to himself, we decide that he is the problem, perhaps even more so than the wealthy, impatient patron who does not want to pay her twenty-five cent fine and causes a scene about it.


This is not to discount the very real impact that dealing with the homeless can have on library workers. Librarians have been trained to be caring and tolerant and to “absorb abuse like human sponges, explaining ‘it’s all part of being a public servant’” (Easton, 1977). (The abuse is not necessarily coming from the homeless person but from the patrons complaining about the homeless people!)  It also can be very taxing on morale to have to deal with both smells and complaints alike, day after day. Some librarians have complained that our profession is not meant to encompass social work (Easton, 1977; Morris, 1986; Rhodes, 1983; Vocino, 1976; Zipkowitz, 1990). In fact, some very negative attitudes about helping people in this helping profession have come to light in these closed-minded articles. Some examples:

For the good of the common peace, these people’s antisocial behavior cannot be accepted, regardless of the socioeconomic circumstances that may cause such behavior. We are not social workers; we are librarians (Manley, 1991).


The experience of large urban libraries suggests that procedures need to be developed for easing loiterers, sleepers, panhandlers, and smelly, verminous individuals out of the library (Morris, 1986).


Open access to all. An admirable philosophy, but at what point does a public servant become a public slave? (Easton, 1977).


Turns my stomach to look at them. There ought to be a limit to what librarians are asked to do to serve people& No one wants to see them. They should be put back where they came from, out of sight (Anonymous librarian on the mentally ill to Zipkowitz, 1990, p.54).


We are not helping these troubled people by treating them as if they were normal, and we certainly are not helping others who come to the library for a legitimate reason (Vocino, 1976).



Clearly these people need to be educated on the need to tolerate both appearance and nuisance behavior, which can be defined as behavior that breaches Zipkowitz’s implied social contract. Sometimes people act bizarrely yet are completely within their rights (particularly their ADA rights, if mentally ill). For example, Johnson (1996) describes the need to be certain of intent in cases of third party sexual harassment of library workers. A homeless person (or anyone), says Johnson, could

suffer from a physical ailment which makes them appear to be glaring or staring, when they are in fact just sitting quietly or possibly even experiencing seizure-related problems. Patrons with disorders such as Tourette’s Syndrome may have physical spasms or shout out words or unintelligible sounds, which could be misinterpreted by staff members unfamiliar with such disorders or with the patron. (p. 115)


Behavior which is truly harassing or truly violent should be dealt with, and dealt with fairly, among all types of individuals who use the library. Hence, we can and have developed codes of conduct for libraries in an attempt to provide fair access for all patrons.


The meaning of the Kreimer case and the establishment of codes of conduct


In the  Kreimer case, Richard Kreimer, a homeless man, charged the Morristown Public Library with unfairly barring his access to the library simply because of his appearance and economic status. In reality, Kreimer was barred from the library because of repeated behavior problems. He was aggressive, angry, and harassing toward the staff and other patrons. However, it was easy for the issue to become confused in both the minds of homeless advocates and librarians. The court ruled the Morristown Public Library’s code of conduct was vague and unconstitutional and violated Kreimer’s civil rights.


The Kreimer decision provided a landmark precedent on the definition of what constitutes a public forum and how that impacts public libraries. This court distinguished between purely public places; i.e., “ traditional public fora”,. where a wide range of individual behavior and expressions were not only tolerable but protected by the U.S. Constitution, and a libraries, which are considered “ limited public fora”,. open to the public only for specific, limited purposes and “where only patron activities directly related to those purposes are constitutionally protected” (Uhler & Weiss, 1995, p. 190).


The negative aspect of this ruling is the sanction that the public may only use the library in ways “directly related to those purposes” as are appropriate in a library. Such a clause allows libraries to forbid people to sleep in the library, which is a fundamental right for anyone, let alone someone who has no legal place to sleep. Certain clauses of the Morristown Public Library’s code of conduct are particularly problematic, for the same reasons. For example, one clause states: “Patrons not engaged in reading, studying, or using library materials shall be asked to leave the building.” (Uhler, 1995, p.190).  This language seems a little extreme and easy to enforce unequally. No one would think to ask a bevy of dowagers to leave the library because they were gossiping and not reading, but it would be easy to justify the removal of a homeless person sleeping quietly in a corner.


The positive aspect of the Kreimer is that it upholds the concept of codes of conduct. As librarians, we can use well-written codes of conduct to equitably enforce inappropriate behavior and maintain standards of safety and comfort in the library’s atmosphere. As Comstock-Gay (1995) notes, “libraries can and should enact a code of conduct. The question is conduct, or behavior, not appearance or speech…Those conduct rules must be applied in a nondiscriminatory way” (p. 34).


These codes of conduct must not be worded too vaguely or be known only as general, unwritten precepts. For example, in Brinkmeir case, the Freeport Public Library barred a man from the library after he had harassed and followed a library worker to her car. Since there were no written, clearly posted rules defining harassment, and since the behavior occurred away from the library, the public library did not have grounds upon which to prevent Brinkmeir. s access to the building (Malmquist, 1996).


The Americans with Disabilities Act


As mentioned before, many homeless people are also mentally ill or suffer from chemical dependencies. Salter and Salter (1996) note “the man sleeping on the floor by the newspaper racks may seem to be ’just a drunk’.. But about 40 percent of the homeless are also alcohol abusers, and alcoholism has long been considered an illness” (p.27).  If such an illness is a disability, it should be accorded rights under the ADA. However, the application of these rights can be tricky if the patron is exhibiting behavior that impinges on fair access to the library by others. What if a homeless man is quietly muttering to himself? He is breaking the implied social contract by looking and/or acting crazy, but he technically is not harming or bothering anyone. But what if he happens to have Tourette’s Syndrome and cannot help but yell out obscenities once in a while? Or, what if the patron is drunk in the library because he suffers from alcoholism? When do his rights end and the rights of the other library patrons take over? Uhler and Weiss (1995) note:

Be aware that there may be additional legal issues that could arise in this area, e.g., certain patron behavior may result from a disabling condition as defined under the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990. The ADA makes it more important, then, that patrons be given the benefit of the doubt, before punitive library action is taken. (p.191)


Certainly, the legal implications are complex and cannot be solved easily. Probably the best way to handle such situations is to take them slowly and with confidence, as difficult as that sounds. The librarian must realize that the patron may indeed be suffering from a legitimate illness and must try to ascertain when the balance between the problem patron’s rights and the rights of other patrons to use the library undisturbed has shifted. Turner (1993) advocates using a common sense approach to evaluating each problem situation on a case-by-case basis. The library’s code of conduct becomes the measuring stick by which behavior is rated, but allows for the librarian’s individual judgment concerning the best way to handle a situation. As Turner  (1993) concludes: “Part of common sense…is accepting people, even mentally disabled people, for who and what they are, and dealing with them on their own terms (p.37)...  This is one effective internal solution to coping with both homeless people and the angry patrons who complain about them.


Solutions!  Solutions!  Solutions!

Although most of the professional literature focuses exclusively on identifying problem behaviors of the homeless in the library, some authors provide concrete solutions. Simmons (1985) notes that there are two ways of implementing solutions: reactive and proactive. Reactive solutions tend to be slightly negative and focus on the library itself. Solutions are created and implemented internally and include hiring security staff and writing a clearly stated code of conduct. More ominous, but potentially useful solutions include keeping an incident or behavior log on a problematic person, which can be later used to secure a court order preventing that person from using the library (Turner, 1993), or documenting health problems resulting from a homeless person’s lack of physical hygiene (Rhodes, 1988).

As mentioned above, codes of conduct should be clearly stated and visibly posted, and should cover all unacceptable behavior, since they will be used by staff as a kind of yardstick at all times of day, including times when staff cannot contact superiors for advice in interpreting the rules. In fact, well-posted rules may help minimize potential conflict with mentally ill patrons, whose experience in mental institutions may have given them “an understanding and acceptance of formal rules, particularly if they are printed and posted” (Chadbourne, 1990). Codes of conduct should, in all fairness, allow the patron to appeal a decision to revoke or suspend his or her library privileges (Uhler & Weiss, 1995), and staff must be trained to enforce the rules equitably and with common sense (Turner, 1993). For example, if a patron’s odor provokes nausea in staff and other patrons, thereby interfering with library business, that patron can be asked to leave until properly bathed. Ideally, staff should also ask women drenched in perfume to do the same. As Comstock-Gay (1995) notes, one should avoid “a most sensitive nose rule,” (p.35). and not be too picky in either case, after all, not all librarians work in country clubs!


Similarly, we should learn to be both sensitive to homeless people’s needs and assertive when a homeless (or other) patron becomes aggressive. Assertiveness training and managerial support for library working conditions can go a long way toward alleviating poor morale. Workshops that utilize role-playing to address problem situations are also useful.


Proactive solutions involve greater community involvement by the library and are generally more positive in tone. Salter and Salter (1996) recommend having public desk workers take college-level classes in psychology. In fact, librarians should consider themselves part of an institution that is among social service institutions in general. Comstock-Gay (1995) reminds us that “people come into the library because it is a refuge… you should be proud of that. It is one of the few places in America where most people feel safe” (p.34). 


Other proactive solutions include providing library access to needed resources such as newspapers, information about social service agencies (Silver, 1996) and materials that honestly address the issues of poverty and homelessness (Venturella, 1991), which also can be used to educate more resistant patrons. Procedures should be created to allow borrowers with non-traditional addresses to acquire borrowing cards. A community analysis, imperative when forming a collection development plan, can provide useful data about the local population of homeless and mentally ill people, as well as the current resources of local social service agencies. Simmons (1985) advocates forming coalitions with these agencies and providing services to the homeless both within and without the library. Venturella (1991) advocates assigning a social worker to work within the library itself, where she or he can have access to a vast clientele. The public library in Haverhill, Massachusetts, has designed library facilities specifically for the homeless, creating a comfortable space complete with television, easy chairs, and newspapers where they can safely stay during the day. Other libraries, such as the Tulsa Public Library, have joined forces with homeless organizations to create daytime centers, responding to traditional shelter rules that require the homeless be out by eight in the morning.


Why go to all this effort?


If we do not take the initiative as librarians, change will not occur. Homeless patrons will continue to sleep in corners and hover around the periodicals. Many social service agencies are as short-funded as libraries, if not more so; therefore, librarians cannot expect that other agencies alone can shoulder the burden of meeting the needs of this special population.


On a more positive note, this special population deserves the kind of attention and respect that we accord other special populations such as minorities, gays, and lesbians, and the elderly, among others. We can look at the requirements of the ADA not as a burden, but as a challenge. Similarly, we can work with other agencies to provide services to the homeless, and to help them find alternative places in addition to the library in which to spend their days. Simmons  (1995) states:


Traditionally the information contained by the library has been used for social change, but ironically, the role of the library as an active agent in social change rarely has emanated from within the agency itself… perhaps because librarians are guilty in lacking the spirit of advocacy.  (p.117)


Perhaps it is time we became more assertive. Perhaps it is time we stood up for the rights of all  of our patrons.





Chadbourne, R. (1990). The problem patron: how much problem, how much patron? Wilson Library Bulletin, 64 (10), 59-60.


Comstock-Gay, S. (1995). Disruptive behavior: protecting people, protecting rights. Wilson Library Bulletin, 69 (6), 33-35.


Curry, A. (1996).  Managing the problem patron.  Public Libraries, 35, 181-188.


Easton, C.  (1977).  Sex and violence in the library: Scream a little louder, please.  American Libraries, 8, 484-88.


Homelessness: New England and beyond. (1992).  [Special issue].  New England Journal of Public Policy.


Johnson, D.J. (1996). Sexual harassment in the library. In B. McNeil & D.J. Johnson (Eds.), Patron behavior in libraries: A handbook of positive approaches to negative situations (pp. 106-119). Chicago: American Library Association.


Libraries for all [Ed.]. (1991, May 29).  Christian Science Monitor, p.20.


Malmquist, K. (1996). Legal issues regarding library patrons. In B. McNeil & D.J. Johnson (Eds.), Patron behavior in libraries: a handbook of positive approaches to negative situations (pp. 95-105). Chicago: American Library Association.


Libraries for all [Editorial]. (1991, May 29). Christian Science Monitor, p.20.


Manley, W. (1991). Courting injustice. Wilson Library Bulletin, 66 (2), 51-53.


Morris, J. (1986). The library disaster preparedness handbook. Chicago: American Library Association.


Rhodes, G. (1983). Transients in the library: a problem statement. Public Library Quarterly, 4 (2), 55-57.


Salter, C.A. & Salter, J.L. (1996). Mentally ill patrons. In B. McNeil & D.J. Johnson (Eds.), Patron behavior in libraries: a handbook of positive approaches to negative situations (pp. 18-43). Chicago: American Library Association.


Shuman, B.A. (1996). Down and out in the reading room. In B. McNeil & D.J. Johnson (Eds.), Patron behavior in libraries: a handbook of positive approaches to negative situations (pp. 3-17). Chicago: American Library Association.


Shuman, B.A. (1989). Problem patrons in libraries: a review article. Library and Archival Security, 9 (2), 3-19.


Silver, J. (1996). Libraries and the Homeless: Caregivers or Enforcers. The Katharine Sharp Review, 2. Available: http://edfu.lis.uiuc.edu/review/ winter1996/silver.html


Simmons, R.C. (1985). The homeless in the public library: implications for access to libraries. RQ, 25 (1), 110-120.


Turner, A. (1993). It comes with the territory: handling problem situations in libraries. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.


Uhler, S. and Weiss, P. (1995). Behave yourself: this is the library. Illinois Libraries, 77 (4), 189-191.


Vocino, M. (1976). Overdue - the library and the problem patron. Wilson Library Bulletin, 50 (5), 372-373.


Zipkowitz, F. (1990). . No one wants to see them. : meeting the reference needs of the deinstitutionalized. Reference Librarian, 31, 53-67.


Zipkowitz, F. (1996). Deinstitutionalized and disabled patrons: opportunities and solutions. In B. McNeil & D.J. Johnson (Eds.), Patron behavior in libraries: a handbook of positive approaches to negative situations (pp. 67-74). Chicago: American Library Association.



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