The Salt Lake City Public Library enacted a new policy this week that limits the number of items patrons can pack into the cherished downtown building.
Starting on Tuesday, librarygoers are only allowed to carry in one large item, such as a full backpack, or two smaller items. And akin to the regulations of airlines, which this new rule resembles, visitors can also bring an additional “personal item” inside.
While this change will not upset a vast majority of patrons who carry little more than a backpack, laptop or purse into the facility—or nothing at all—it could affect some of the homeless visitors who have nowhere to store their stuff.
David Schneider, who has been homeless off and on for 13 years, says he sees the new policy as a way to target the homeless. He believes discriminatory policies are common in local establishments, such as fast food joints, and he sees this as more of the same.
“What it amounts to is that they’re trying to drive the homeless people out of here,” he says. Next to Schneider, as he eats from a block of cheese at a table inside the library’s ground floor, is the entirety of his worldly possessions. With bungee cords, he’s secured a duffle bag, a sleeping bag, a blanket, sacks with groceries and a few more personal items onto a dolly.
Schneider claims to have witnessed other policies applied selectively, such as the library’s rule that forbids visitors from falling asleep on chairs.
“If you’re going to have rules, you’ve got to enforce them on all people,” he says.
Peter Bromberg, executive director of the Salt Lake City Public Library, says staff began working on the policy after a surprise fire evacuation unearthed some safety concerns. The fire alarm was set off about four times last fall, which gave the library a clearer picture of potential hazards.
“Patrons who were bringing a real significant amount of stuff—some cases stuff twice as big as they were—they were unable to evacuate in a safe manner,” he says. In the event of a real emergency, he continues, library staff need to be able to usher everyone out of the building as quickly as possible. Not only were folks reluctant to leave their mounds of stuff, he says, but items blocked the aisleways.
Bromberg says all people are welcome at the library, though. The policy is strictly a matter of safety and not meant to keep any particular demographic away. A Volunteers of America team is located on-site, and they can help others pack their disparate items into one bag. The library will also make recommendations to those who could utilize nearby storage lockers.
But library visitors like Daniella Jessee don’t feel comfortable leaving their belongings unattended. She recently thumbed through a stack of books at the library, unaware of the impending guidelines. After three years living on the streets, Jessee also carries all of her possessions with her.
“This is all I own,” she says. “I guess I just won’t come here as much.”
Leading up to the policy shift, library staff surveyed the patrons and identified 10-15 regulars who will need to store belongings elsewhere or repack their bags in order to be compliant with the new rule.
Bromberg says he hasn’t heard any first-hand accounts of patrons complaining about sharing space in the library, which has become a popular place for homeless residents to hang out, escape the elements and rest their feet.
“We as a public library, we’re here for everyone,” Bromberg says. “We have patrons who say, ‘This is the only place I can go where people treat me with dignity.’” He hopes the library will continue to foster an environment that is welcoming and respectful.
Taking the namesake of the maligned Road Home Shelter on Rio Grande Street that city officials aim to one day shut down, Schneider jokes that the library has been labeled “The 200 E. Road Home” within the homeless community.
A few years ago, discussions circulated about the possibility of opening up the downtown library 24 hours a day. The proposal generated complaints, however, that it would serve as a de facto homeless shelter. A 2014 Salt Lake Tribune article quoted members of the public who pushed back against opening the library doors at all hours.