Public places, safe spaces: How libraries help the homeless

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The tent city along Hiawatha Avenue in Minneapolis may be gone, but the city’s homeless problem didn’t vanish. The homeless can be found every day in libraries around the Twin Cities. And one of those libraries even has a full-time social worker helping to meet the needs of its patrons. 

Before dawn, people who don't have a place to call home start to arrive at the Minneapolis Central Library on Hennepin Avenue. The building's vestibule, lit in warm hues of yellow, beckons those to the confines of the entry hours before the massive building opens to the public.

A woman who sipped coffee next to Dunn Brothers said she planned to spend the day at the library, a place to shelter from the bitter temperature of minus 28 degrees (minus 50 with wind chill).

Other people waiting in the vestibule slowly lined up for the community room to open.

One man called it the "amazing room,” knowing he would get a hot cup of coffee and a warm place to spend the morning. 


Judy began coming to the Central Library a year and a half ago.

“The library was truly a place I would come every day. It was a safe place; the streets are not always easy for women or for a lot of men,” Judy explained. "I was extremely scared and subsequently met people who were in the same situation I was.”

Paul never imagined he would be homeless. After a serious illness, the former project manager for IBM found himself spending nights at local shelters. 

“After that first experience there, I thought if this is what being homeless is like I am going to go and jump off a bridge because it was horrible,"  he said adding that the library was a safe environment.

"I didn’t know about the homeless thing, didn’t know where to go so for the five months I was homeless, I came here every day.”


The Central Library was where Paul and Judy met Kate Coleman, an outreach worker who spends her days among the books and computers looking for those who need help, and connecting them with social services.  
“Our community is coming in and using this space and the library staff started to notice a lot of patrons coming in had a lot of social needs," she said "We have a very crowded shelter system, people sleeping on the train because shelters are full. This is a place where people can truly feel safe.”

Coleman first came to the Central Library as an outreach worker for St. Stephen’s Human Services, until she was hired by Hennepin County.  St. Stephen’s estimates Library Outreach staff assisted more than 350 library patrons access homeless assistance last year.  

Paul and Judy were both able to find housing, thanks to Coleman and now both volunteer at the library, helping others who have walked in their shoes. 

“The library is one of these amazing places, one of the few that is left in our city where everyone can come,” said Coleman.

“A couple years ago I would have said, ‘No, the library should not be this,’ because I had my own perception of homeless people. Becoming homeless myself that perception has changed quite a bit,” Paul said.


Janet Mills has seen the evolution in her 20 years working for the Hennepin County Library System.  She’s the current interim director.

“As the needs of our community become more complex, then you are going to expect those needs are going to come into our libraries,” she said. “We want to be a welcoming environment for all our community members for all Hennepin County residents.”

For privacy reasons, the Hennepin County Library System doesn’t keep data on who uses the library. But the shifting demographics show up in two years of security reports analyzed by the Fox 9 Investigators.  

There were 49 physical altercations, 21 threats against staff, and 19 verbal arguments.  Many of those cases occurred at the Central Library and a significant number involved people who said they were homeless, or who did not have a permanent address.  

One of the reports details a woman drinking from a bottle of vodka, walking around picking fights. There was the man who was drunk on mouthwash at the library, and a homeless man high on methamphetamine.  

Another report detailed a homeless man with schizophrenia and off his medications, who fondled a woman with special needs. 

And therein lies one of the challenges: the library can also be a place where people come to pray on the vulnerable. 

“While we do not want any incidents to happen in our libraries that make patrons feel unsafe or staff feel unsafe, I would say those numbers do not seem high to me considering the number of visits we have across our entire system," Mills said.

If patrons don’t follow the rules they can be banned from the place for various periods of time. The bans extend from one day to a year. Someone needs to commit a felony to get a year-long ban.  

Library staff said its security model is more about customer service than enforcement.  All the guards receive de-escalation training.  

At the Franklin Avenue Library, not far from the homeless camp, the doors were taken off the restroom doors because people were doing drugs, just a few feet away from where people were learning how to read.  This year the Franklin Library will get a $1.7 million upgrade, and part of that money will include accessibility and safety improvements at the restrooms.