Monday, August 15, 2011

Homeless patrons prompt Bethlehem Area Public Library's behavior policy

Bethlehem Area Public Library officials say they used to have
 problems with people sleeping on tables in the library until they
revised their acceptable patron behavior policy last month.
Express-Times Photo - Matt Smith

by: Lynn Olanoff

The Bethlehem Area Public Library is a place to take your kids to story hour, pick up your favorite book or search for jobs on the Internet.

As of last month, it's not a place to sleep, bathe or panhandle.

The library revised its acceptable patron behavior policy to deal with the significant influx of homeless people who were spending their days at the library, Executive Director Janet Fricker said. While most of the 26 behavior rules are general — such as no eating, smoking or talking on cell phones — others seem to be directly targeted at the homeless, including rules that prohibit bringing in sleeping bags or having offensive bodily hygiene.

Those are the rules that particularly trouble the Rev. William Kuntze. The senior pastor at Bethlehem’s Christ Church United Church of Christ has long been an advocate for the homeless and said he doesn’t like to see them discriminated against.

Kuntze said he is particularly bothered by the rules that involve judgment calls. What constitutes offensive bodily hygiene or sleeping versus napping is subjective, he said.

"I have no doubt if I was in a suit and was napping for a long time I wouldn’t be thrown out," he said. "It’s very clear some of these wouldn’t be applied in the same way to someone like you or like me as they are to our homeless neighbors."

Kuntze also said he would like to see some change to the rule that patrons cannot bring in sleeping bags, bedding or more than two bags total. Unlike people with homes or cars, homeless people don’t have anywhere else to store their belongings when they go to the library, he said.

Kuntze met with Fricker about his objections. She brought them up last week to the library board, which made one minor revision to the policy, changing no sleeping, napping or loitering to merely no sleeping.

Homeless people have always utilized the Bethlehem library, but the issue came to a head early this year when a van started dropping a group of them off at the library every weekday morning, Fricker said.

“A library cannot be an adult day care center — we do not have the resources for it,” she said. “It was getting out of balance. It was getting to a point where people who regularly use the library with their kids weren’t coming here anymore.”

Anyone violating the behavior policy is first issued a warning and will be asked to leave the library for subsequent violations.

The van was from the rotating shelter program run by a dozen Bethlehem churches that provide the homeless with places to sleep in the winter. Craig Updegrove, the program’s volunteer coordinator, said the program has both a Center City and South Side pickup location and that the library was seen as a central location for homeless people who use the library, Trinity Episcopal Church’s nearby soup kitchen and other Center City services.

Kuntze has been keeping Updegrove and others involved in the sheltering program apprised of his objections to the library behavior policy, but Updegrove said not all participants, including himself, feel similarly to Kuntze.

“What can we really expect the library to do?” said Updegrove, a parishioner at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church. “We don’t expect them to let them sleep there or smell up the place, if that’s the case. It’s a public place, and you want to have a safe place for everyone.”

The church coalition met in the spring along with other officials to try to find solutions to assist Bethlehem's homeless. The city does not have a year-round shelter, and the group resolved to work toward creating one and providing the homeless with health services.

The coalition is talking to potential health services partners and will run the rotating shelter program again this winter, but it is far from its goal of a year-round shelter, Updegrove said.

Fricker told the library board last week that she feels the revised policy has already been helpful. A library employee mentioned the offensive bodily hygiene provision to one man, and the next time he came in, he was wearing fresh clothes and seemed very pleased about it, she said.

“This can have some positive effects, too,” she said.

But Kuntze knows of others who have steered clear of the library since the new policy was enacted.

“The people who are experiencing them know they’re discriminatory against them,” he said. “Those who are advocates, particularly for the homeless in this case, we need to try to at least get fairer policies with some options.”

from: LeHighValleyLive

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