Closed Seattle Libraries Lead to Overstuffed Homeless Shelters

A budget-cutting measure has exposed how important public libraries are to Seattle's homeless population.

Thanks to citywide budget cuts, the Seattle Public Library system was shut down last Monday through Sunday, Aug. 27–Sept. 2. While the closure saved the city roughly $613,000, it also—obviously—cramped the style of those who frequent Seattle's libraries. And that includes the homeless.

While rules and security measures are in place to keep the Central Library from becoming a full-on shelter, it's commonplace for the homeless to seek refuge at computer terminals and amid the stacks during foul weather—or even just to pass the time until real homeless shelters open in the evening.

So where do the homeless go when the library closes for a week? Anecdotal evidence suggests Seattle's daytime social-service programs for the homeless experienced a noticeable uptick in the number of people looking for help during last week's closure.

Ronni Gilboa, a program manager at Seattle's Urban Rest Stop—which offers restrooms, shower and laundry facilities, referral services, and general information to the homeless and low-income individuals and families—says that during the first few days of the budget-mandated library closure, the program experienced roughly a 12 to 15 percent increase in visitors each day.

"The Urban Rest Stop is always operating at maximum capacity," explains Gilboa via e-mail. "The impact of the library closing means longer lines, longer waiting times, and larger numbers of people being refused services, as we do not have sufficient capacity to offset the library closures."

Gilboa isn't the only person who describes such a scenario. Seattle's Compass Housing Alliance offers a wide-ranging list of services to those battling poverty and homelessness—including shelters, transitional housing, and permanent low-income housing, along with day services like showers, laundry services, mail services, savings accounts, and warm cups of coffee.

Lindsey Lund, the communications coordinator for Compass Housing, says while it "obviously can't directly link it to the library closure," the agency also experienced increased demand last week, specifically pointing to a spike in those utilizing the agency's daytime services.

At the Compass Housing Alliance Day Center on Third Avenue, the last week of a month is routinely the busiest; Lund says the center serves an average of 275–300 people a day during these times. After checking with a staff member at the Day Center, Lund reported an 11 percent increase in visitors on Monday of last week and a 28 percent increase on Tuesday (when 378 people were served), as compared to the last weeks of June and July. "This explains why we had a lunchtime food shortage yesterday, and our consumption of regular staples (plates, coffee, creamer, cups, sugar, paper towels, t/p, etc.) has increased drastically," wrote the Day Center staffer.

Despite the additional challenges presented by an increase in visitors—library-related or not—those driven to help people suffering from poverty and homelessness seem inclined to keep grinding for the cause. Writes this Day Center staffer, "No matter the increase[s], we welcome everyone, because this is why we are here and this is what we do!"

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