Thursday, February 14, 2008

Real reform overdue at your public library

Urban public libraries across America are experiencing the inevitable consequences of a mental health system that is broken. There are more than 200,000 people in our nation today who are homeless and have a severe mental illness such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. On cold days, many of these people will seek shelter at the local public library.

At Ekstrom library on the University of Louisville campus, students compete with the homeless to get on computers. As one student observes, “If the homeless are using property reserved for paying U of L students, then something needs to be done about it.” However, according to library staff, unless the homeless person is causing a disturbance, they are usually left alone.

Chip Ward described the disturbing conditions at the Salt Lake City public library in his poignant op-ed last year.

“People mumbling to themselves, shouting obscenities, and poking nails into celebrity pictures are just some of the problems encountered. Ward observed, “Like every urban library in the nation, the City Library, as it is called, is a de facto daytime shelter for the city's "homeless."

“Homeless” is indeed a misleading term because it clearly focuses on the wrong problem. Most people who remain on our streets over a long period of time do so not because they lack the means to find housing. Rather, up to 70 percent of the homeless are struggling with a serious mental illness, and for them providing housing without treatment is pointless. Remember Nathaniel in California?

Sadly, the general contempt for those who are homeless will only grow as our system continues to ignore the underlying problem. The real solution to this problem will not be found in new library policies. It will be found when our mental health system assumes responsibility to care for people who have mental illnesses so severe they don’t understand they are sick.

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