A patron collects himself after being asked to leave for sleeping in the Everett Public Library on Wednesday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

A patron collects himself after being asked to leave for sleeping in the Everett Public Library on Wednesday afternoon. (Kevin Clark / The Herald)

Everett Public Library faces challenge of homelessness

EVERETT — A number of incidents involving homeless people at the main branch of the Everett Public Library have city officials taking steps to help make visitors feel safer in the building.

At the same time, Everett has tried to balance those actions, including an increased police presence, with ensuring the library remains open to everyone, including people without homes.

“Some of them cause trouble, and some of them come in and read the newspaper or use the computers,” said library director Eileen Simmons.

The presence of homeless people at the library is nothing new. Everett does not have a day center for homeless adults. Once the Everett Gospel Mission closes its doors in the morning, the library is one of the few public places available that has heat, running water and electricity.

But some recent incidents, including drug overdoses and vandalism, were more disturbing for the library staff and patrons.

“People had bad reactions to drugs and had to be taken out of here on gurneys,” Simmons said.

“My staff are trained to work in a library, but they’re not social workers, they are not EMTs, they are not police,” she said.

Everett has been working on several initiatives to tackle street crime more effectively and to address some of the root causes of homelessness. Hil Kaman, Everett’s Director of Public Health and Safety, said that’s involved the input and work of all the city departments and staff.

The city’s long-term focus has been on building housing and making more treatment options available. At the same time, many public areas, such as the library, Everett Station and city parks, have more immediate problems.

At Everett Station, for example, the doors on bathroom stalls were removed for a time to discourage drug use, before the city realized that step also contributed to travelers’ sense of unease. The station has since upgraded security in other ways, with more security cameras and police presence.

This month, Everett police began patrolling the library during the high-traffic afternoon hours after the city approved overtime for the officers. The library staff also has been given more training on how to deal with disruptive people.

The wireless internet network is now turned off at night and exterior electrical outlets were covered to discourage people from loitering or camping outside the building. The city’s facilities staff has been considering changes to the landscaping on the property for the same reason, Simmons said.

The staff have installed new exterior doors on the restrooms with large windows. The doors to the stalls were reduced in height to 58 inches, something the Seattle Central Library also did, Kaman said.

Those two steps should discourage drug use in the library without compromising patrons’ privacy, Simmons hopes.

“We have to try something,” she said.

The library also plans to hire a second security guard and to reorganize the checkout area so the office staff can better see comings and goings of visitors.

All of the measures being put into place are intended to focus on problem behaviors rather than any specific population.

“We’ve been working with the library really for several years now, trying out programs to take on a challenge that’s evolving,” Kaman said.

Simmons said she hopes those steps will enhance security at the library without impacting the needs of patrons, including those who are homeless.

“If you’re living on the street, there really isn’t any other public option to use the restroom or get out of the weather,” she said.

“We hope we can make it so that people feel safe,” Simmons said.

Chris Winters: 425-374-4165; cwinters@heraldnet.com. Twitter: @Chris_At_Herald.

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