Public Libraries Grapple With Issue of Homeless Visitors
BOSTON — PUBLIC libraries throughout the United States are struggling to reconcile their tradition of open access with the increased presence of homeless people.
Richard Kreimer, a homeless man in Morristown, N.J., sued the Joint Free Library of Morristown and Morris Township last year, saying librarians had infringed on his First Amendment right to gather ideas from the library's materials. On several occasions Mr. Kreimer was asked to leave when library patrons complained that he smelled bad, was staring at women, and was following people around.
Last month, a federal appeals panel reversed a lower-court decision and upheld the library's policy. Kreimer's lawyers have filed for a rehearing.
In July 1989, the Morristown library established rules on expelling people whose personal hygiene or behavior interfere with others' use of the facility. Although these rules apply to anyone, "they have a disparate impact on the homeless," says Kreimer's lawyer, Frank Askin. "It's really not disputed that the rules were originally devised because of some homeless people who were using the library."
"This case had nothing to do with homelessness," says Nancy Byouk Hammeke, director of the Morristown library. "This was simply about the rights and the obligation of boards of trustees to be able to make rules to protect their patrons and their staff.... The bodily hygiene issue was the least of the problems. What we were trying to do was prevent patrons from staring at our staff and ... generally harassing and intimidating people."
The Morristown library has received letters, cards, and flowers from librarians nationwide for "taking a stand and preserving safety in public libraries," Ms. Hammeke says.
Kreimer says that allowing librarians to expel people is "dangerous." As he told the New York Times, "There's nothing to prevent libraries from using their own prejudices to remove someone they don't like."
Kreimer also sued Morristown police and the town council for harassment last year. In November, the city settled that suit for $150,000. Kreimer also received a settlement from the library's insurance company. Three weeks before the appeals panel upheld the library's rules, Kreimer was paid $80,000 to settle his claim for damages. Kreimer is still homeless, though his lawyer says Kreimer now is spending time in a motel.