The Millions

What’s a Library to Do? On Homelessness and Public Spaces

The Central Library building in downtown St. Louis.

1.
Russell had a long beard that at least one librarian likened to Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s. Every day he showed up to the Central Library building in downtown St. Louis, and because he always wore the same clothes, bearing the logo of the city’s former NFL team, the staff privately nicknamed him “Rams Jacket.” It was increasingly becoming a problem that hundreds of people like Russell, who spent their nights at the homeless shelter across the street, would spend their days in the library. But Russell was, according to one librarian who worked at Central at the time, “the most regular of the regulars.”

He always sat in the exact same room, at the same table, in the same chair. He usually read quietly, and when not reading, he napped sitting with the book propped up in front of him. He was in many ways the ideal library patron. However, Russell slept at a shelter where a different person used every bed each night, the linens changed only once a week. He became afflicted with bed bugs. He suffered from painful, suppurating sores.

Homeless people spending time in and around public libraries are nothing unusual in metropolitan areas. It has been written about , . But at this central library in St. Louis, the city system’s crown jewel, a conundrum that exists all over the country was heightened to a rare degree. A library is supposed

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