Alvin Stewart lives in the Downtown Eastside and spends time at the Vancouver Public Library’s central branch almost every day. Photo: Vivian Luk.
On most days of the week, Alvin Stewart can be found perusing the movies section at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), carefully inspecting the DVD selection.
Stewart loves books, too, but movies are his passion. It’s a short walk to the downtown Vancouver library from East Hastings Street, where he lives in a low-income building, and he tries to arrive right when the library opens.
“I do like coming here early there, just in case they have a new selection of quick views up on the shelf,” he said one Friday in June.
Stewart didn’t find anything that day, but he shrugged it off because he can just renew the movies he had borrowed previously. For Stewart—as it can be for many other patrons—a public library is a barrier-free place for him to access the things he loves.
In Vancouver, Victoria, and across North America, urban libraries are more than place to borrow movies and books. For people with no fixed address or in vulnerable housing, libraries are places to seek shelter, to stay in touch with loved ones, and even lay their heads to rest, even if just for a short while.
A hub for at-risk youth
Libraries are go-to places for some of Vancouver’s at-risk and homeless youth. “We’re one of the very few free spaces left for youth in the city,” says D’Arcy Stainton, a librarian manager with VPL’s Teen Services. “Most spaces you have to go and buy a cup of coffee or spend money, so we do get a lot of teens at the library in our low-income neighbourhoods.”
At Britannia Library, youth can often be seen at the small art gallery by the entrance curled up with a book, charging their phones, or dozing. Like other patrons, teenagers also use the space to check out books, hang out with friends, and use the free Internet to surf the web or connect with family. But sometimes, young people arrive at Britannia hungry and desperate. They turn to the library when they think they have nowhere else to go, says children’s librarian Natalie Patel.
“The other day I came in, and there was a boy sleeping underneath the foyer display case,” she recalls. She knew he needed a safe space to rest.“I was on my way to work, and I saw him and I recognized him, so I was able to call him by name, and he opened his eyes, [and I said], ‘the library is open in five minutes, you can come in and rest in there.’ He did.”
San Francisco’s pioneering library social worker
The fact that public libraries tend to be places for the low-income to gather is not a new phenomenon. San Francisco Public Library’s main downtown branch has long been a hub for patrons who are homeless or suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues.
In 2008, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the U.S. to hire a full-time social worker, Leah Esguerra, to connect with patrons who had started to view the library as a de facto homeless shelter. Other libraries across the States followed suit, with social workers, nurses, and outreach workers hired to work in public libraries in Salt Lake City, Tulsa, and Sacramento, to name a few.
“A lot of them do use the library to read and use the resources here, but given that it is also a nice place and anyone is welcome, homeless folks also come here to do other things that aren’t really library-related, such as taking a bath in the bathroom or sleeping here,” Esguerra says.
She was hired to connect patrons to resources such as permanent housing and mental health services. She also provides information about community resources such as places to find free or low-cost meals, find clothing, and take naps and showers.
Esguerra says the library viewed her role as so essential that she now also trains and supervises several formerly homeless patrons who receive a stipend to do outreach work. Each day, she and the outreach workers walk the library’s seven floors to connect with patrons in vulnerable situations.
“A lot of times they would nicely just say they’re not interested, but that way, at least we’re able to break the barrier for them to start to know us,” she says. “And then they start to trust us. Eventually down the line, once they have a situation where they become more interested, [then they’re] ready to accept help.”
Community engagement closer to home
Both Vancouver and Victoria have embraced the idea that a public library can play an important social role in
the lives of vulnerable citizens. Beth Davies, manager of neighbourhood services with Vancouver Public Library, says staff members often visit places like food banks or detox centres to see what types of library programs or services people might like. That type of community engagement recently led the Vancouver Public Library to introduce a new kind of library card that allows people with no permanent address to access all of the city’s branches.
“We find an increasing number of people are coming to the library with their own devices—whether that’s a laptop or smartphone—but they don’t have access to the Internet in most places, and they’re not able to afford to take it to a café and be able to do it, so our wireless use is really high,” says Davies. “I think that was something we found surprising because we assumed people may not have computers or devices.”
Greater Victoria Public Library also sees similar scenarios. Though library staff could never know what a patron’s circumstances are, core district coordinator Judy Moore says staff can often discern whether someone walking through the door may be without a permanent home.
“We have individuals who come into the public library who are there literally from the time our door’s opened at
9 a.m. to closing at 9 p.m.,” she says.
“They bring with them sometimes their lunches, they move from area to area, reading newspapers and books and using computer technology, partaking in library programs.”
Moore says the downtown Victoria branch started seeing more homeless patrons around the 1980s, roughly around the same time when B.C.’s health care model moved away from institutionalization in favour of community-based care. As a result, the role of the public library began to evolve.
“I think what has changed is there is recognition in libraries that we are a part of a broader solution in terms of community support for people who are homeless,” she says.
For example, the library partners with the non-profit Ready To Rent BC, a housing literacy program aimed at educating people about their rights as renters, the rights of landlords, and how to find, budget for, secure, and maintain a rental home (Megaphone published a story about Ready to Rent in December 2013). Though the library does not directly deliver the program, it helps Ready to Rent publicize events and offers space to host information sessions in acknowledgement of the crucial role housing plays in people’s lives. “For a person to become employed, to overcome their homelessness,” Moore says, “they really need to have good accommodation.”
“You are somebody who has value”
Having the library be a gathering space for people from all walks of life isn’t without its challenges. Sometimes flare-ups occur, and staff are trained in de-escalation techniques to deal with it, Moore says. Beth Davies, with VPL, also says staff take courses in violence prevention and mental health.
At Britannia Library, Natalie Patel says there have been times when patrons are in crisis, and the library needs to call for help.
There was a young girl in here one day who couldn’t get up,” she recalls. “She was totally catatonic and…we ended up calling an on-site worker who deals with mental health and addictions, and she came in and sat with her and tried to talk to her. And then we ended up calling 911 and this worker stayed with her and went with her to the hospital.”
Such occasions arise occasionally, but Patel says for the most part, what the young patrons seek is compassion, whether it’s in the form of a juice box or a granola bar, or simply a smile.
I think a large part of what we do—besides providing a safe place for them to be, a place for them to rest their heads, a place for them to communicate with their families, to be entertained by the books, things like that—is just to acknowledge that they’re valuable people, and to know their names, to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’, to make eye contact, to smile,” she says.
"In that way, [we] say you are somebody who has value, even if you don’t have a place to lay your head at night.”
Story by Vivian Luk
Homeless and low-income people have been using the free internet, books, washrooms and comfy chairs in libraries for decades. In Megaphone Issue #158 out today, we look at how libraries are changing to better serve their most vulnerable patrons.
Also in this issue: Victoria’s new police chief takes a friendlier approach than his predecessor to low-income people and their allies; a provincial rental subsidy for seniors could go a long way to improving housing security if more people applied; vendor Hendrik Beune talks about the many lives—and jobs—he had before selling Megaphone; Canada’s proposed anti-prostitution law gets sex workers and their customers all wrong; and much more!
Megaphone. $2 every 2 weeks. Find your vendor here.
The Victoria Youth Custody Centre, pictured here, is slated to close due to dropping youth detention centre populations across B.C. The closure would require current youth custody centre residents to move to a facility in Burnaby, B.C., which advocates say could land at-risk youth in even riskier situations. Photo courtesy of the B.C. Ministry of Child and Family Development.
By Vivian Luk
When the provincial government announced earlier this year that it was shutting down the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, the closure was touted as the result of a success story: the number of people in B.C.’s three youth detention facilities has declined so dramatically over the past decade that it no longer made sense to keep the one in Victoria open.
“This is a really big success story for British Columbia, but it also means it’s not sustainable or responsible to continue funding over-resourced facilities,” Children and Family Development Minister Stephanie Cadieux told reporters in late April. “It’s increasingly difficult to maintain quality programming when we’re delivering services below a capacity level that makes sense, so therefore a decision has been made to close the Victoria Youth Custody Centre.”
Cadieux said the number of youth in custody has dropped by 65 per cent over the past 10 years, and the three youth detention centres in Burnaby, Prince George and Victoria have all been operating below capacity. Though a timeline for closure has yet to be determined, Cadieux insisted that shutting down the 60-bed Victoria centre and transferring the approximately 15 young people there to the facility in Burnaby would save $4.5 million in funding from the federal government.
However, critics call the pending closure a flawed plan that focuses only on cutting costs rather than on the welfare of B.C.’s youth.
“What we will be doing is having the young people spend a lot of time sitting in a sheriff’s wagon, driving around,” says B.C.’s child and youth watchdog Mary Ellen Turpel-Lafond.
“They will not be able to see their families. They will not be able to have as close a confidential relationship that they will need with their legal counsel, for instance, because they will be doing video hook-ups, which is not the same for young people who have a lot of difficulty communicating anyway. Just the moving kids around like cattle from location to location—who will pay the cost for this closure? It will be the young people.”
Closure could de-stabilize youth already on the margins
An overwhelming majority of young offenders come from disadvantaged backgrounds, says Turpel-Lafond. Many have spent time in foster care, or have suffered from sexual or physical abuse, homelessness, mental health issues or other struggles that have led them to be involved with crime in the first place.
B.C.’s three youth custody centres offer rehabilitation programs that attempt to guide young offenders toward more pro-social behaviour. Turpel-Lafond says she fears relocating youth from Vancouver Island to the Lower Mainland means those who need to head back for court appearances will be forced to share rides or holding cells with adult offenders.
“They are likely to be exposed to more seasoned and experienced criminals who may influence them in a negative way when we’ve been doing a very good job in our current facility at meeting the needs of that population,” she says.
Cynthia Day, chair of the Victoria Family Court and Youth Justice Committee, shares Turpel-Lafond’s concerns. Removing youth from their community and placing them in an urban centre such as Burnaby could drive them to organized crime, she says.
“Obviously things have gone wrong that they’ve got to the point of needing to be in the custody centre, but in order to have relationships, which every human needs, they’re going to try to find them wherever they can,” she says. “It may be with gangs, it may be with people who may introduce them to prostitution or drug trade opportunities over there.”
Roughly 70 per cent of young women in custody are Aboriginal, and taking them away from their culture and families could recreate the residential school experience, adds Day.
“When the youth are in crisis, the family is also in crisis,” she says. “Moving the kid off the island stresses the family further and puts more limits on their interaction, and we want to ensure that there’s a healthy relationship between the youth and their family, and also between the youth and the community that they come from.”
“I will no longer be able to see my family”
In a recent letter written to Cadieux, Turpel-Lafond noted that many youth in the Victoria centre are worried that those in their support network won’t be able to visit them in Burnaby.
“I will no longer be able to see my family, my lawyer, my probation officer, my social worker, and my counsellor,” said one young person, whose testimony was included in Turpel-Lafond’s letter. “I think it would be unreasonable to close this centre because most of the kids here are from the island and how are their families suppose to visit them in [Prince George] or Burnaby; it is too far and it is almost a hundred dollars to take a ferry.”
Both Turpel-Lafond and Day are proposing ways to repurpose portions of the Victoria Youth Custody Centre, including adding mental health or detox services, so the facility can remain open. This way, young offenders can stay close to home, and the institution is available in case the number of youth in custody spikes.
Cadieux declined an interview, but she insisted in April there is no problem with relocating youth to Burnaby.
“The reality is that we currently are operating three centres…which means that for any youth that does not live in one of those metro areas—so someone from Kelowna, or Kamloops, or Terrace, or Prince Rupert, or Fort St. John—they’re already transported to one of the centres [that are] a fair distance from their homes and we are able to have the same outcomes in reintegration for them as we are for the youth who are nearer to home,” she said.
Vancouver’s Spring Advertising designed benches this year for RainCity Housing that aim to provide an alternative to the disciplinary architecture often seen in public spaces aimed at welcoming certain demographics of people while shutting others out. Photo: Spring Advertising for RainCity Housing.
By Tanya Gulliver
Big news last week was the street-level installation of spikes outside a new luxury housing complex in Southwark, a south central neighbourhood of London, England. The spikes were assumedly erected in response to a homeless person who had been sleeping there a few weeks ago. Pictures and commentary about the spikes spread quickly through Twitter, Facebook and other social media.
My friend, Rev. Jim Houston, said, “The really amazing part of the story is the widespread uproar on behalf of the homeless against the use of ‘defensive architecture.’” Defensive, or disciplinary architecture often arises because communities (businesses, residents, police) are complaining about the use of public spaces by people they deem to be nuisances.
It’s this line of thinking that often leads to laws that criminalize people experiencing homelessness. This manifests in ticketing, use of space bylaws such as rules that prohibit sleeping in parks or panhandling rules, and even the rising incidence of local authorities cracking down on feeding people who are hungry in public spaces—the latest National Coalition for the Homeless report on the state of homelessness in the United States reflects a troubling increase on municipal bans on publicly giving people free food.
A change in public conversation
Public reaction to the anti-sleeping street spikes in London is unusual, Houston says, because rather than the usual anti-homeless NIMBY-ism that can come about in these conversations, many people are protesting and claiming that the spikes are invasive and inhumane.
Defensive or disciplinary architecture includes any type of built structure that aims to exclude certain uses, or certain groups of people, from using that structure. For example, designing benches that feature steep slopes prevent people from sitting for long, though one can lean against them. Benches with divides on the seats prevent people from sleeping on them. The same is true of narrow bus shelter seats.
Other techniques include blasting loud noises all night in areas where people experiencing homelessness gather, or continually washing down window ledges, sidewalks, and benches. These techniques are also used to prevent skateboarders from using public spaces.
So, the street-level spikes aren’t new; they’re outside stores and businesses far beyond the ones that sparked the outcry in London. In China, a prohibitive stretch of concrete spikes have been installed under city bridges, well-known sleeping spots for people with other choice but to sleep outside. In Germany, a designer coined an idea for a pay-per-use bench that grows spikes unless the user feeds it money to make them disappear. I’d hate to lose track of time in a good book; it’d be a pain in the posterior!
Jokes aside, these spikes—and the fact that they’re cropping up all over the world—speak to a larger global issue: how do housed and homeless people sleeping rough share space in society?
Shelter, not spikes
I’m inspired by the benches designed by Spring Advertising for RainCity Housing in Vancouver this year. The benches, in my opinion, do a great job at drawing attention to the fact that benches in public spaces are a necessary source of shelter for people in desperate situations.
Spring designed two benches for RainCity. One bench converts into a shelter—way more useful than spikes. The other uses glow-in-the-dark paint to portray different messages in the night and day. “This is a bench,” the bench reads during the day.
“This a bedroom,” the bench reads at night.
Comforting the afflicted, afflicting the comfortable
Last year, Timothy P. Schmalz’s street art depicting Jesus Christ as homeless person also raised controversy. His bronze statue of Jesus asleep on a bench was rejected by various churches in Toronto and New York before finding a home at Regis College, although a wooden version of the same statue was well received by Pope Francis at the Vatican. The same statue raised controversy in Davidson, North Carolina when it was placed outside St. Alban’s Episcopal Church. Jerry Dawson, a local resident, wrote the following in a letter to the editor:
My complaint is not about the art-worthiness or the meaning behind the sculpture. It is about people driving into our beautiful, reasonably upscale neighborhood and seeing an ugly homeless person sleeping on a park bench. It is also about walking by this sculpture at night and passing within inches of the grim reaper. These are the impressions that this sculpture gives.
I have stepped over actual homeless people sleeping on a sidewalk in New York City and not been as creeped out as I am walking past this sculpture.
I’ll let that letter speak for itself, but if that is the reaction to a statue, it’s not surprising to see Southwark’s response to an actual homeless person. NIMBY-ism is alive and well.
Solutions? Create more affordable housing by either building more housing or providing rent supplements. Develop programming that supports the needs of someone moving into housing, especially for Housing First programs. Don’t penalize or criminalize people for being homeless. Improve discharge planning from hospitals or correctional facilities. Support youth aging out of care, and child welfare.
It’s up to all of us to speak up and speak out. If we don’t want to see homeless people in public spaces, we need to work to end homelessness; they’d rather have their own place to go, too.
Tanya Gulliver is the Research Coordinator for the Canadian Observatory on Homelessness (COH) based at York University. The COH works to mobilize research evidence to have a bigger impact on ending homelessness in Canada. She is also a PhD student at York’s Faculty of Environmental Studies looking at community resiliency and recovery after catastrophic disasters. From 2003-2010, Tanya taught the Homelessness in Canadian Society course at Ryerson University. Tanya was on the management team and staff of the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee. She is co-founder of the Toronto Homeless Memorial. A version of this article originally appeared on HomelessHub.ca.
A group of academics and activists is trying to drum up interest in an ambitious plan to provide every Canadian with a guaranteed minimum level of income — whether or not they have a job.
“The motion aims to bring in protocols used by area First Nations for official functions given they never officially gave up their land.”