Sunday, January 15, 2006

"Public Means All of US" - César

Next month, the Dallas Public Library will institute new regulations that will have the effect of pushing homeless people out of the city’s public spaces and back onto the streets. The code of conduct, a series of regulations barring all kinds of activities ranging from sleeping to walking around with bare feet to smelling bad inside the library, will be enforced by library staff on a case-by-case basis and only when someone complains. According to the library’s director, the regulations are intended to “provide a welcoming environment for anyone who walks through the doors.”

Anyone? Regardless whether we think kicking homeless people out of libraries is a good idea or not, we all know that these regulations aren’t intended to make “anyone” comfortable. If you’re reading this from your laptop while drinking a cup of tea and listening to jazz (which describes me as I’m writing this), then sure, the Dallas library wants you to be comfortable. But if you’re reading this from a computer at a public library because it’s one of the few free climate-controlled public spaces in your community, then sorry, you’re not part of the new “anyone.”

There’s no question that the code of conduct isn’t going to be used to kick out that annoying middle-aged white woman who was sitting about 50 feet from me with an electronic gadget that kept beeping (blackberry? palm pilot? cell phone?). The same goes for the twenty-something who smells like she showered in perfume. Some people argue that there’s a difference between Chanel and body odor. I disagree.

I can’t stand the smell of perfume (yes, I dislike all perfume in anything over a drop or two). I also can’t stand the smell of cigarette smoke that clings to smokers. When a smoker, or an over-zealous perfume wearer, or, yes, when a person with strong body odor comes near me I simply move away. I don’t ask the person to leave. I don’t tell her that she doesn’t belong near me, that I’m more entitled to the street, the subway, the sidewalk, the park bench, or the library than she is.

If I want to be in a controlled environment, a place where I set the rules and enforce them upon a whim, then I stay home. I don’t go to a public space, a place designed for the enjoyment of (here’s that word again) anyone, and enforce my sense of civility. Writing this on Martin Luther King’s birthday, I’m reminded that our country’s history has a towering example of this in racism. White people, empowered as they were to make policies, decided that sharing public bathrooms, buses, libraries, and all kinds of other public facilities with certain members of the public (i.e., people who weren’t white) violated their sense of civility. So they passed regulations, city ordinances, maybe even some codes of conduct, all of which told people of color that they weren’t part of the “public” meant to enjoy public facilities. White people could do this because they had the economic, political, and social power to do so, so they did. But passing a law because you can doesn’t mean you should.

We have to call measures like these what they really are: attempts to remove people we don’t like from the removers’ sight. If we don’t see homeless people we won’t have to think about them. We can acknowledge that homelessness is unfortunate, that in the richest nation on earth there ought to be more we do for the homeless, but we’d like to do that from a safe distance. At least far enough that we won’t have to smell or hear them.

But ignoring the problem won’t eliminate it. The majority of homeless people are mentally ill. Many have lengthy criminal records (often stemming from incidents that occurred when the mental illness got out of control). Social services in virtually every city are woefully lacking. Saddest of all, many of our nation’s homeless are children.

Tossing homeless people out of libraries does nothing to eliminate or ameliorate homelessness. It does nothing to remind us that we’re still part of the same community.

This isn’t an issue of economics, safety, or hygiene. This is about values. Do we want our communities to be divisive places where the people who happen to be in power marginalize the most dispossessed members of our society in the name of their own comfort? As John Stuart Mill wrote, “the tyranny of the majority … [is] a social tyranny more formidable than many kinds of political oppression, since, … it leaves fewer means of escape, penetrating much more deeply into the details of life, and enslaving the soul itself.” (from On Liberty)


Blogger DCNats said...

I agree with a lot of what you said... "If you want a controlled environment, stay home." You're right.
You also said, "Tossing homeless people out of libraries does nothing to eliminate or ameliorate homelessness."
That's true as well... but really, since when is it the Public Library's responsibility to eliminate or ameliorate homelessness?
They're simply responding to complaints they've probably received... Although I agree with much of what you say, I gotta go with your brother on this one... he summed it up best: "If the lady with her cell phone is sleeping in one of the cubicles, she should be kicked out along with the homeless guy. If the homeless guy is reading a book, no problem."
Great argument though, can't wait to read more of guys disagreeing...
BTW I know a librarian in DC and he has to throw out the same guy once a week for trying to wash his socks in the bathroom sink.

8:35 AM, January 19, 2006  
Anonymous cad said...

that is so horrible. That the only place for a lot of these homeless people. I often visit the Dallas Library, and yes, I won't lie, it's uncomfortable, but they have the same right as I do to walk through those doors.

I hope something happens to where this doesnt pass or become permanent.

and ugh. . was i the twenty-something who smells like she showered in perfume? Probably. . sorry! =\

8:19 PM, January 19, 2006  

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