Two weeks ago, Ottawa Council declared an Affordable Housing and Homelessness Emergency in this city. That same week, we learned that the main branch of the public library now keeps its lobby doors locked in the early mornings, no longer allowing people who are homeless to access that space in the early hours for rest, warmth and respite.
I want to tell you about a woman I met last summer. Mary Beth (not her really name) may have been your neighbour. Years before finding herself living on the streets with all of her belongings in a single black suitcase, she was living and working, just like most of us. But a sudden job loss and subsequent death of her only child meant she was no longer able to pay her rent and faced eviction. She moved to shelter, but felt unsafe after experiencing verbal and physical threats.
For the past three years, she has spent her days and nights moving around the city in search of safe spaces to stay alive. Her days are spent in parks downtown, with respites into City Hall for warmth and rest on the benches. When that building closes at 11:30 p.m., she uses her Presto pass to ride the bus until the last run, around 3 a.m. For the next three hours she walks, keeping herself awake, and until recently she would head over to the lobby of the main branch of the Ottawa Public Library. She would be joined by others who have spent the last 24 hours much the same way. They would gather there for the three hours of warmth and rest until the library opened its doors. And her day would start over again.
Two weeks ago, Ottawa Council declared an Affordable Housing and Homelessness Emergency in this city. That same week, we learned that the main branch of the public library now keeps its lobby doors locked in the early mornings, no longer allowing people who are homeless to access that space in the mornings for rest, warmth and respite. Mary Beth no longer has a warm place to rest for those precious three hours every morning.
Public libraries are great equalizers. Once we walk through those doors, we are all equally welcome into a space that is staffed by some of the most knowledgeable and compassionate people in our community.
Since learning that this change in opening hours has occurred, I have been approached by many people who walk by the library or share the entrance to their workplace expressing their dismay at the removal of “familiar faces” who sat or slept (often upright) every morning. Where are they now? It is hard to say. These are the most marginalized and voiceless people in our city. It is our collective responsibility to ensure that they are not further marginalized. If there are security concerns because of the actions of a few, then we deal with the few without punishing Mary Beth and others who need safe space.
Public libraries are great equalizers. Once we walk through those doors, we are all equally welcome into a space that is staffed by some of the most knowledgeable and compassionate people in our community: librarians. Librarians are often in the position of administering kindness and care to people in our city who truly need the care of social workers. Let’s follow the lead of other libraries in Canada and other countries who recognize this need, and instead of closing doors to people who need us the most, introduce social workers to our library staff. Social workers have the ability to provide on-site support to people, and to connect them with further health care and social supports. Connecting people who need it with existing services such as health care and housing workers in the community is an important step towards ending homelessness.
People experiencing homelessness live everyday with shame and stigma. They are poor. They need a place where they can feel like they belong. This is what the library offers. When the doors open, they move inside to read, use the computers, meet friends, sometimes sleep. No different from anyone else in the same space. And they are welcome. Our librarians make sure of this.
That is why it is so important that they are allowed into the lobby in the early hours before the library doors open. It keeps them alive from the cold, safe after a night of being alone outside or precariously housed and it is the beginning of another day of survival where they are welcome.
Catherine McKenney is the Ottawa councillor for Somerset ward and Council Liaison for Housing and Homelessness.