Work group launched to look into homelessness near Austin libraries

A homeless man near an Austin library (KXAN Photo)
A homeless man near an Austin library (KXAN Photo)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In anticipation of Austin’s new $125 million library scheduled to open this fall, the city wants to address homelessness at public libraries. The move comes amid questions about how library staff can help those in need as 311 complaints around the downtown library increase.

“I come down here to read, you know, I like reading and kind of pass time away and I meet a lot of people down here,” Clarence Holloway said. “And it makes me feel good.”

Holloway says he enjoys catching up with old friends, some who are homeless. Just as he once was.

“A lot of them don’t like to hang around down there at the Salvation Army and the Austin Resource Center for the Homeless because there’s so many drugs and so many fights,” he said.

Darryl Swanier told KXAN he too used to be homeless and stayed at the ARCH for a period of time. The library served as a place of peace — to read, use a computer and get out of the elements.

“It was like a safe haven,” Swanier said, comparing the location to downtown shelters. “Them drugs, you don’t know what type of reaction they can have. They can hit you, they can kill you.”

But there are concerns about more complaints and crime, particularly at Faulk Central Library on Guadalupe Street, beyond staff’s control.

“They’re not equipped to be social workers or case managers, counselors,” Swanier told KXAN. “The homeless population is — you know with the K2 drugs, the crack, the alcohol, it’s just so much they can do. You know, they’re not the police.”

KXAN Investigates obtained Austin Police Department records that show in the last year, APD has responded to 15 assaults at the downtown library and 22 within a 250-foot radius. There are also multiple reported theft and drug arrests among other charges.

“The purpose of the work group is to basically ask a fundamental question, which is – what is the appropriate role of the library branches when it comes to serving the homeless population?” Library Commission Chair Chad Williams told KXAN, “The folks who work at the branches, they see the same people a lot. And what we’re hoping to do is give them the resources they need to know how to react appropriately, given a certain situation.”

Rebecca Schwarz is a former librarian and says she’s in and out of Faulk Central Library nearly about once a week.

“I think the library is a great place for everyone and that includes people that are homeless,” she said. “It would be great to see maybe some social services that can be housed in or close to where the homeless come.”

There’s talk about library staff partnering with other city departments and even non-profits.

“We want Austinites to feel comfortable coming to our branch libraries. We serve the Austin community. But we don’t want to just sweep aside this homeless population,” Williams said.

The library commission says within the last couple months, staff have created procedures on how to address someone who is disrupting others. Now, if you get too many warnings, you will be removed from the branch for a given amount of time. The commission says it’s too soon to say how successful the new system is, but calls it another effort to increase public safety.

The commission will report recommendations from the work group to Austin City Council.

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