Gale Snible, a publicist for the New York Public Library (NYPL), said a library card became mandatory for logging onto the internet at most branches as part of a technology upgrade last year that permits users to join a virtual waiting list, and limits the time a user can surf the web. The NYPL oversees 85 research and branch libraries in Manhattan, Staten Island and the Bronx. Officials at the separately operated Brooklyn and Queens public libraries say they plan to shift to a similar system.
This new policy hurts the homeless community of New York, said Rogers, a member of the advocacy group Picture the Homeless. Rogers, who has been homeless for three years, gave only one name to protect his privacy.
“Homeless people depend on free access to internet in libraries to find out about job listings, keep themselves informed and email résumés to potential employers,” said Rogers, who regularly searches craigslist.com for weekend jobs or part-time work.
According to the NYPL website, adults applying for a library card must provide “current, traceable identification that includes both name and address,” such as a driver’s license, rent receipt, utility bill or an apartment lease. For homeless people, a letter from a shelter suffices, but Rogers said this doesn’t solve the problem for those who sleep in subways or parks.
Last year's annual street count found roughly 4,400 homeless people living outside the shelter system in New York. Michael Stoops, spokesman for the National Coalition for the Homeless, said many people don’t realize how important libraries are for the homeless, and estimated that at least 10 to 20 percent of homeless people regularly use libraries. In the 1980s, libraries were “de facto base centers” for the homeless, said Stoops, but in recent years complaints from patrons and security concerns after 9/11 led to restrictions.
Library restrictions have not been limited to New York City. “The last year has seen a tidal wave of regulations that is making it more difficult for homeless people to avail themselves of the facilities inside libraries,” said Sanford Berman, a retired librarian and Minnesota activist. As examples, he cites library regulations in San Luis Obispo, California, banning offensive body odor and in Houston, Texas, prohibiting the use of restrooms for bathing.
Berman has long advocated keeping library services available to low-income and other disadvantaged users, at times donning an old army coat and frayed shirt to investigate how libraries treat the poor and homeless.
Despite the new NYPL policy, visitors at a drop-in shelter for the homeless on 28th Street in Manhattan say they have already figured out loopholes. Dave Bocti, who has been homeless for four years, said he uses the internet to do research on Egyptians and religion, and plans to use a friend’s address to try and get a card. Frank Smyth, who alternates between sleeping in Central Park and at a men’s shelter, guffawed as he pulled out a taped wallet from the pocket of his sweat pants. “I have three library cards,” he said, waving one in the air. “Each has a different address on it. No one asks and no one checks.”