When Mike Karl entered the downtown branch of the Capital Area District Library, he wasn’t thinking about books. Karl had only two things on his mind: to get warm, and to get to sleep.
“I slept in the bathroom, to tell you the truth, because I couldn’t get much sleep at night,” said Karl, founder of Homeless Angels, a community-funded homeless hotel program. “I’m not the only one that does that. I’ve found people down there sleeping.”
That was over a decade ago, and Karl has long since found housing, but his situation is not unique. Though the bathrooms are now patrolled to ward off people sleeping in them, many homeless people still seek out the library to get shelter — especially in the winter months. However, Starting Dec. 31, the downtown branch, at Kalamazoo and Capitol streets, will close until at least mid-March for a $600,000-plus renovation. Though this will be an inconvenience for many, for its homeless patrons, it could be a nightmare.
“I’m really disappointed that they’re closing for so long, because here I don’t have a CATA card, so I can’t hop on a bus to go to a new library location to even get a book,” said Larry Banner, a man who has been homeless for three months now, noting that the library is his only outlet for the Internet. “Every month is going to be a bother for me because I can’t contact any of my people or anything.”
It’s not difficult to see why the library is such a big draw for the homeless. The downtown branch is centrally located and provides a variety of amenities. The obvious are books and Internet access, but arguably most important, it serves as an informal warming center for many. It is also a safe, publicly accessible space that requires no fee for admission.
Another draw is that library staff won’t ask patrons about their housing status. It’s why many choose to come," Executive Director Maureen Hirten said.
“You can’t actually tell who is homeless,” Hirten said. “As long as you follow our rules, you can stay as long as you want her within library hours.”
Karl said the amount of homeless people at the library are so many, the Homeless Angels program used to send volunteers to walk into the library just to seek individuals out to offer them aid.
“When we used to walk in there, it seemed like there were hundreds of people in there, and I want to say 60 percent of them were probably homeless,” Karl said. “You can pretend to read a book even if you can’t read. What is the library going to do? They can’t kick you out.”
Often, it is the homeless who stay at the library the longest.
"In winter on a cold day, as soon as the library opens up, or even before the library opens up, there’s a line of people waiting to come in,” said public service librarian Sara Doherty, who has been at the library for 10 years. “It depends on how cold it is, how windy it is, how snowy it is, whether people feel like braving the street, and what else is open. Frequently we have people who wait until we open and stay until we close.”
CADL is aware of the impact its impending closure will have on the homeless community of Lansing. According to Susan Cancro, the executive director at the Advent House Ministries, the Lansing branch library has let Cancro know about the upcoming renovation to attempt to make the period of closure go as smoothly as possible.
“We realize it’s going to cause some disruption for people who go there, so we want to make sure they know where they can go during the week or weekend,” Cancro said. “They can go to the New Hope Day Center at Volunteers of America on Larch downtown, not too far from the library. It’s available all day and there are meals there" on weekdays.
On the weekends, Advent House Shelter can fill in the role of the VOA day shelter while individuals are between overnight stays.
Cancro said that the closure is coming at a bad time because resources have been especially slim recently.
“Our resources are always strained. I can’t speak for VOA, but for Advent House we accommodate whoever comes to us,” Cancro said. “Over the last few months we’ve seen an increase of about 17 to 20 percent in use of our day shelter on the weekends.”
Karl speculates the homeless may flood the CATA station, nearby restaurants and potentially other libraries when the closure displaces them.
“It’s going to be hard, especially if they’re doing this in the wintertime,” Karl said. “It only takes seven minutes for hypothermia to start.”
Still, some homeless individuals say that even with the inconvenience of the closure, the benefits of the renovations will outweigh the costs in the long run.
“If that’s what it takes, two months for a brand new one, then so be it,” said John Martinez, who has been homeless for two months. “That’s going to be awesome. That’d be one thing, a step ahead for Lansing.”