How Littleton's Bemis Library became a resource for the unhoused

Nixing of sleeping ban, emphasis on training create safe space

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When Mark Raburn goes to Bemis Library in Littleton, he likes to read history books. 

"I've studied war stories since I was like 6-years-old, that's how I learned to read," Raburn said. 

Raburn, 56, has been homeless ever since he was evicted from his apartment near the University of Denver during the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. With no job and short on cash, Raburn relies on places like Bemis to stay warm, brush his teeth and take his mind off the world. 

"The library staff is better at Bemis, they actually let you sleep," said Raburn, who drifts between Littleton and Englewood. "Englewood will run you out if your eyes even just close."

For Raburn and others experiencing homelessness in the region, Littleton's library has become a refuge and a resource, though it has faced some unease from the community for doing so. 

"There started to be some pushback from other parts of the community about not wanting to see people experiencing homelessness when they themselves came to use the library," said Bemis librarian Claire Mattoon. "And as staff, we had to continually emphasize that everyone has a right to be here." 

Mattoon has worked at Bemis since 2013 and, at the beginning of her third year on the job, began noticing more and more people who appeared to be homeless coming into the library. With that, Mattoon said, tensions increased . 

There was no clear policy for staff to go off when it came to ensuring access for homeless patrons, Mattoon said, and usually it became a case-by-case issue. 

"But then our leadership had some changes and there was a recognition that we needed more tools," she said. "But some of the many challenges we had were actually not with folks experiencing homelessness but with people in Littleton who didn't want to see the problem." 

The library's shift in culture began in 2018 when the staff reviewed and updated several of its policies. 

The most notable policy change was removing the ban on sleeping in the library, which staff said they found to be discriminatory towards those who are unhoused.

"We weren't waking up the 90-year-old gentleman who had nodded off over his newspaper, or the 3-year-old child who fell asleep on the floor of the children's room," Mattoon said. "It was only there if we saw somebody who appeared to be of a certain economic status, and a lot of times it was something that other patrons came to us to report."

Raburn said he usually doesn't sleep in Bemis, because he feels it can be a bad look. But he knows others who do. 

"If you're homeless, you're sleeping all the time," he said. 

Along with removing the sleeping ban, staff also began undergoing mandatory training on how to better communicate with homeless patrons as well as de-escalation tactics to avoid conflict.

The library's staff subscribe to the Librarian's Guide to Homelessness, a series of online and in-person trainings from Ryan Dowd, the former director for Illinois’s second-largest homeless shelter.

For Library Director Nancy Trimm, the changes have made a huge difference.

"I think staff was struggling before we had the tools," Trimm said.

The reasons for why those who are unhoused come to the library vary. It's not always just for a warm place to rest, sometimes it's to find information on overnight shelters and food banks, which the library publishes and distributes an extensive list of. Sometimes, it's to use a computer or a phone to access government benefits. 

"Ultimately, we provide resources and information and try to connect people to that," Trimm said. 

Before 2018, Trimm said library staff would hear complaints about people who were homeless in the library about once a week. Most rarely rose above an annoyance, though sometimes library guests would ask staff to remove a person, Trimm said.

On occasion, police had to be called to the scene if a conflict escalated to the point where staff safety was being threatened, but that was less common, Trimm said. 

Since the policy changes, community resistance to seeing an unhoused person inside the library has lessened, according to Trimm. Staff are getting less complaints from patrons and more understanding about the needs of the unhoused.

"As a community, Littleton is talking about the problems of homelessness," Trimm said, adding that conversation is needed to spark change. "If you don't talk about an issue, there's going to be a lot of fear."

And Homelessness in the metro region continues to worsen.

A 2021 study by the Metro Denver Homelessness Initiative found the number of unhoused people in the Denver metro area climbed by 15% between 2018 and 2020. 

From July 1, 2020, and June 30, 2021, more than 32,000 people were designated as homeless in the metro region, according to another study by the initiative. 

While homelessness was on the rise before COVID, the pandemic made clear how easy it could be for someone to find themselves struggling, Mattoon said, exacerbating issues of job loss, lagging wages and unaffordable housing. 

"A lot of people that did not think they would ever be on the cliff edge economically ... suddenly realized how precarious life can be for anyone," Mattoon said. 

How long that empathy will last, Mattoon doesn't know. But Trimm said the library will do all it can to continue to serve as a safe place and a resource. 

"We're going to be involved whether people want us to or not," Trimm said. 

Still, library staff aren't social workers, and even with the training, Trimm said employees can feel the exhaustion of helping.

"Sometimes we do feel some compassion fatigue or burnout," Trimm said. 

It's why she's excited to see the progress that city staff has made as they try to introduce solutions to homelessness outlined in a 2019 action plan. Littleton has joined with the cities of Englewood and Sheridan to implement a laundry list of new actions, such as creating a homelessness navigation center and hiring a coordinator to oversee the efforts. 

For Raburn, he'll continue to visit Bemis as long as it remains open, or until he can find a way out of his situation. Raburn said he is usually at the library three or four times a week, staying each time for several hours.

The earlier months of the pandemic were especially hard for Raburn, who had fewer places to go when libraries like Bemis shut down. When it reopened in-between waves of COVID, Raburn would think "woo-hoo, let's go to the library!" 

While he said the perception of homelessness in Littleton has improved, issues still remain. Whether he's in the library, sitting in a cafe or walking in a park, what Raburn wants from those he's around is kindness. 

"I just think everybody should get along," he said.

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