Different perceptions concerning the homeless and the library

Many people don’t realize that there are laws protecting the homeless and their use of public spaces.

Did you take the Enumclaw City Council Public Safety survey last July? It was about public perceptions of Enumclaw Library safety. If you have, you may have been one of the 1,194 people who filled out the brief three-question survey. By coincidence, a month later, the King County Library had a more extensive survey sent out to patrons that was unrelated to the Safety Committee’s survey.

Based on concerns Enumclaw City Council members heard from residents about their perceptions of safety at the library, the Council Safety Committee met with library officials at the Enumclaw Police Station on Nov. 18 to discuss survey results and potential next steps.

The Safety Committee’s survey asked for responses to three questions. Question 1: “On a scale of 1-10, would you recommend Enumclaw Library to others? The positive response was approximately 4.2/10.

Question 2: “Do you feel safe at the Enumclaw Public Library?” No — 70.56 percent. Yes — 29.81 percent.

The third question requested comments.

The KCLS survey encompassed the whole county and was more extensive. It was contracted out to EMC Research. The survey took place between Aug. 8-30, 2019. There were 11,280 interviews with 216 responses from KCLS employees.

When broken down into the 98022 ZIP code, there were 108 responses. One question asked, “How safe are the libraries to visit?” There were 94 percent positive responses that were rated excellent or good with 89 percent positive responses overall.

Another pertinent question was “How welcoming and accepting are the libraries to visit?” Fifty nine percent gave excellent or good responses with 95 percent positive responses overall.

There was an agree/disagree question with the following statement: “Libraries are a safe place where everyone in the community is welcome, no matter one’s age, gender, faith, income, ethnicity or cultural background?” In the 98022 ZIP code, 84 percent either strongly agreed or agreed. Overall, 78 percent strongly agreed, while 2 percent strongly disagreed.

Why did the two surveys differ so much? One explanation given at the meeting was that the KCLS survey came from library patrons primarily. The Safety Committee survey came from a larger group.

At the Nov. 18 safety meeting, Chief Bob Huebler and two other officers (one a commander), met with three Enumclaw City Council members, the city administrator and city attorney, three KCLS staff from the district office in Issaquah, and three members from the Enumclaw Library Advisory Board. (I currently serve as president).

This meeting was obviously important to all parties involved since library safety is a big concern in the community. We were all looking for ways to change perceptions as well deal with safety.

Several times during the meeting, Chief Huebler noted the landmark Supreme Court decision “Martin vs. Boise” regarding law enforcement interactions with homeless citizens. The case made three major points: 1) Homelessness is not a crime. 2) Police can do a welfare check to ensure an individual is not in physical or mental crisis. 3) There are strong legal protections for homeless individuals’ use of public spaces.

Now that you have some background, here’s my take: If you read the 43 pages of comments in the Safety Committee survey you will see that of a lot of people are really uncomfortable with the presence of the homeless at the library. One of the council members who attended stated, “The library should not be a daycare center.”

The city administrator noted the mistaken perception that, “If it were locally controlled (rather than run by KCLS), we wouldn’t have a problem.” One library board member who is a retired local librarian responded that when the library was run by the city, there were homeless people then as now, who slept in the chairs and between the stacks.

Many community members don’t want the homeless in our community. But, as you can see from Chief Huebler’s comments above, there are strong legal protections for them. They are a fact of modern life, throughout the whole country.

One local KCLS staff member noted that she has worked in several cities (Kent and Renton). Enumclaw has fewer problems than they have. KCLS has very clear graduated rules about behavior, and they enforce them, but the library is open to all as long as they are not disruptive.

To deal with patron concerns in Enumclaw, KCLS spent $35,000 paying an arborist to trim the shrubbery around the building. They shut off the wifi at 9:10 p.m. Librarians now stroll around the grounds three times per hour. The restroom doors have been locked open. Staff have been trained in dealing with behavior issues and with adults wanting to watch pornography, which is legal under the First Amendment and Supreme Court decisions. Both the city and KCLS are in full agreement that the focus needs to be on behavior in and around the library, and not on personal appearance or grooming.

The police commander ended the meeting by stating that the solution will come with better communication between the city and KCLS. Government officials are having to adapt to changing conditions. The meeting was one of a series that has taken place over the past three years. Library staff and EPD members plan to continue to meet to discuss real and perceived safety concerns at the Enumclaw Library.

Enumclaw is no longer Mayberry, if it ever was. We need to adapt to our times, not deal in an idealized past that never existed.

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