Addressing the City Council last Tuesday in a plea for additional funds, Sawyer Free Library director Carol Gray aired a problem that has bedevilled library staff and patrons for years.
She admitted exasperation over the library's having to stretch itself into a social services agency for abusers of "drugs and alcohol" and the troubles of "homelessness," a reference to visitors who often take refuge in the library during the daytime when the Action, Inc. homeless shelter is closed.
There were 152,000 visits to the Sawyer last year, but the library, which is funded by $760,000 a year, "is not just books and computers," said Gray in an interview last week.
"This was just one more thing to deal with," she said of the social services issue, "and we don't have the wherewithal."
The library is seeking an immediate infusion of $13,000 to go toward filling a long vacant position of assistant director to help with community outreach and staff training, among other duties.
As Gray noted, the library, by law, offers free access to everyone and, she said, "issues arise, not just limited to the homeless, but other members of the community, too.
"It's not up to us to determine what's 'free access,' and when we step in," she said.
"People can be out of line, disgruntled, asleep," she said. "Many times the ones who know each other police themselves and 85-90 percent obey the rules. But we're public and there is that dance over what we can do."
Police Chief Michael Lane estimated his officers are involved with something at the library — "maybe just asking people to move on" — two or three times a day.
He said the department sends a squad car or ambulance once or twice a week. Gray said that might have been true in the winter or spring, but is much less now. She said the last time police were called was in April, for a man who passed out in the bathroom.
Gray "can call us anytime," said Lane, admitting it is time-consuming and costly to the taxpayers to patrol the library.
"But that's what we do," he said. "Carol is almost too good of a soul. She could be tighter with the rules."
A task force of health, social, church and library workers is now studying ways to implement new policies and procedures to ameliorate the so-called homeless problem at public facilities.
Also, the drop-in refuge called the Grace Center has been operating for six months on a rotating basis three days a week among Trinity Congregational, Unitarian Universalist and St. John's churches to take in people during the day "for coffee and a place to put their head down," even if it's on a wooden table, said Rev. Tom Bentley, pastor of Trinity.
"We've seen 105 individuals since opening," he said of the Grace Center, "and have definitely seen a reduction in reports of incidents from the library and Senior Center." Bentley said he sees 20 to 25 people a day, with two to four new faces each week.
Occasions of troublesome patrons are much improved these days, said Gray, admitting there were incidents in the past involving sex and drugs on the premises, multiple empty liquor bottles in the bushes and people nodding off, passing out or just reeking of bad odor in the chairs.
Gray said she was unaware of any sexual activity, drug sales or consumption in recent times. But other library users have said they witnessed what appeared to be attempts to use the public computers to create illegal prescriptions, or to purchase drugs.
"I'm not sure the library workers even knew," said one city resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal.
Gray is understandably concerned that reports of trouble at Sawyer might dissuade patrons, especially children, from using its services. She emphasized that a full-time custodian monitors the premises, a key system for use of bathrooms is in place, and there has been "no evidence for months" of delinquent behaviors, except perhaps asking some patrons to go improve their hygiene.
"Rather than deal with an incident punitively, we want to find a systemic solution to this problem, which affects every library," said Gray. She said she is instituting staff training to that end.
Nancy Gaines is a regular Times correspondent and a veteran writer.
and editor with Boston-based and national publications.