In a recent interview I was asked about what I thought were the biggest issues facing the Ann Arbor District Library. I discussed the future relevance of the library, driving usage, promoting a strong and contemporary image, owning and sharing the narrative of the diversity of services offered, and trying to decide how to grow the physical footprint of the library, if at all. As a follow up question I was asked how I would deal with the "homeless problem" at the library.
This gave me pause. I knew what was being asked and yet, I will admit, I stumbled on the response. I understand some of the associated struggles people in our homeless community face. I understand that drug use and mental health issues are often met with minimal resources and allowed to fester and go untreated. I understand that as a public operation the library may be a place where these struggles manifest themselves. I understand, intellectually, the use of the word “problem,” but I struggle with the all-encompassing use of the word in this context. My response was at best schizophrenic; trying to work between what I knew was being asked and my struggle with treating such a large issue in such simplistic terms.
Driving home I was disappointed in my answer. I was worried by the question and the definition of a problem in terms of a misunderstanding of an entire under-served community in our cities. I worried about the characterization of our homeless population in its entirety. In our treatment of homelessness, it is important to be mindful that we are talking about families, children, veterans, and other people, who are dealing with unique challenges, people for whom homelessness may only be a temporary condition. This population is a group of individuals most in need of the services and support offered to our communities by the AADL.
Access to training, access to a computer, access to the Internet, access to a warm place to work at a table, a place to check email, explore housing support, explore career options are essential tools for individuals working to affect change to these circumstances. As a public institution offering these services, the potential impact of the AADL to these families and individuals is enormous. I worry about the type of planning and strategy that potentially comes from an understanding of homelessness rooted in stereotype and assumption. I wondered if a more honest question to ask, is how should the AADL continue to deal with the growing heroin and drug epidemic and its impact on the library.
Laying a social problem that represents the structural failing of so many sectors of our government and human service institutions at the feet of the AADL seems unfair. If asked again how I felt the AADL should address the" homeless problem" I think I would respond differently. My response would be, there are enormous problems facing the impoverished populations in our county. As a public institution the AADL is a frontline actor dealing with these problems. The AADL needs to be part of a comprehensive collaboration involving government, educational, and human service organizations that holistically addresses issues of drug addiction and poverty in a way that does not restrict access to much needed services for some of our county’s most in need.
The AADL will continue to be a frontline community resource dealing with the issues of homelessness and drug addiction. This will continue to be a challenge, however, I would much rather entertain a conversation of how the AADL can be a resource and a tool to those agencies best suited to deal with these problems as opposed to laying the accountability for doing so on the library. The mission of the Ann Arbor District Library is, in part, to assure “public ownership of print collections, digital resources, and gathering spaces for the citizens of the library district.” AADL has a stated value of “Providing, supporting, and advocating access for all.” I worry for the policy and practice that comes when conversations turn to the wholesale treatment of some segments of our citizenry as “problematic.”
Dr. Steven Simpson is currently the President of Baker College of Jackson and is seeking a position on the Ann Arbor District Library Board of Trustees in the November 2016 election. Additional information about Dr. Simpson and his candidacy can be found at www.simpsonaadl.com. You can reach Dr. Simpson at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter@simpsonaadl.