Very rarely do I make a special trip to the downtown library in Charlotte, but when I’m in the vicinity, I always try to drop by. There is, after all, a much larger collection of books and I can easily find myself lost among the rows and rows of bookshelves. Over the past few months, I’ve found myself lost inside the UNCC library instead and had no reason to visit the downtown library.
Last year, “someone” in charge decided that with all the necessary budget cuts and much-needed money that they should just close down several branches of the library system in Mecklenburg County. Naturally there was a community outcry. Many children do not have access to computers at home and use the library for school assignments, not to mention the growing hoards of the unemployed who also use the library computers to search for jobs. It isn’t uncommon for kids to go straight to the library after school and complete their homework while waiting on their parents to pick them up after work, thus the library branches also offer a safe haven for many. I don’t have children, but I do frequent the branch closest to my home at least once a month, so I was among the screaming citizens who demanded that the county find money in other places.
A few weeks ago, I received a letter from the county asking for money to keep the library branches open. They have already slashed the hours so dramatically that anyone working a 9 to 5 schedule hasn’t a chance in hell at making it before they close. I couldn’t help but notice how nice the letter was with its colored shiny cards. It made me wonder how much money it took to mail those to every household in Mecklenburg County knowing that 95% of them would end up in the trash! I decided to send my request back in with a sticky note stating “I have already paid to have all library branches in this county open and available for a FULL schedule with my TAXES!” Needless to say, they haven’t sent me anything else!
Back to today. I was in the city having lunch at one of my favorite spots, Merts — amazing soul food! The library is directly across the street so I decided to go in for a look around. It didn’t take long for me to realize that in the short time since I’d last visited, many things had changed. The book collection, which had once filled three stories was now reduced to one story with the other two used for storage. Apparently many of the books had been sold to raise money to keep the library open.
My second stop, the restroom. I am not one who likes using public restrooms. I’m not a germaphobe, but people can be really nasty! I was saddened to note at least one, possibly two, homeless people stuffed into the handicap stall squatting counting items from a paper bag.
I then hopped onto the elevator and went to the second floor where there was an overcrowding of homeless people. You may think that I am making assumptions, however, when people are totting several bags each with personal items such as clothes and appear to have not bathed in some time, assumptions become realities!
As I made my way around the different sections, I became aware of a dynamic system. The main library had turned into a hub of sorts for the homeless. They were in groups mostly, segregated into different sections. For example, four men and a woman occupied the Science Fiction area. Around the corner, another group held territory in the magazine section. I realized that these people not only knew each other, if only from appearance, but also from groups. If a stranger entered their area, one or more of them would get loud and some would even exhibit the actions of the insane, such as talking to themselves. The point seemed to make the outsider aware that they were in someone elses territory and that they were not welcome.
Needless to say, one hour of observation was enough for me. As I was leaving for the elevator back to the main floor, I became almost paranoid, as I was being followed — perhaps another “warning” that I was not welcome. I made sure that I was the only one on the elevator and quickly made for the exit.
On my drive home, I questioned my thought process. I asked myself if I were being unreasonable or even prejudiced. I understand that if I were in the position of a homeless person that the library would make a perfect place to find warmth from the harsh winter. I also know that people change psychologically in those situations and adapt to new ways of life in order to survive. Although I was no harm to any of them, perhaps they were as uncomfortable by my presence as I was by theirs.
Aside from budget cuts that have stripped this community of our libraries, homeless shelters have also suffered severe cuts. With more people having their homes foreclosed on every day, there are more chances that the main library will become even more crowded. There has to be a better way. People, no matter what their lot in life, deserve to have their basic human needs met!