Homelessness and the Street-Level Bureaucrat

By herbertwest


“At some point, I suppose, all of us in our lives confront some unavoidable, outsized horror. Maybe it’s a tumor, or a little brother playing with a gun, or a psychopath in a day care center, but inevitably, a moment comes for all of us when we realize that we cannot beat the devil on this one.”

           The line, taken from Susan Jane Gilman’s essay Picnic in Treblinka, is one of those pristine nuggets of indelible truth; a passage so perfectly put that it just seems to scream out to be underlined and read again and again.

            In Picnic Gilman recounts her time as a fresh-faced, piss and vinegar-fueled reporter for The Jewish Week. She’s not very good (she orders lobster bisque during lunch with a prominent rabbi), mostly due to the fact that as a twenty-something who’s been largely sheltered all her life, Gilman is filled with hubris. The Jewish Week is just a bump in the road, the cross she has to bear before The New York Times and Vanity Fair discover her natural talents and snatch her away to print media Camelot.

            Eventually Gilman’s job leads her to a gig chaperoning teenagers on a trip to, of all places, Auschwitz, and that’s when the aforementioned epiphany comes; this idea that eventually the world is going to rear its ugly head and give you a toothy, terrifying smile, as if to say, yes, this really is a horrible place.

            We library science students seem by default to possess a naïve (albeit well-intentioned and possibly altruistic) idea of what our future roles as librarians will be. To put it more simply, we want to make a difference. Cossette might not enjoy seeing librarians as educators, but to some extent that’s exactly what we are: We promote literacy and facilitate the acquirement of knowledge. It is the hope of every librarian that a patron exits his or her library at least a little more well-informed.

            The desire to make a difference is not a bad thing. In fact it’s tremendous. Where, really, would the world be without its do-gooders or the selfless progressives who decided to stick their necks out? But do we as students, like Gilman, suffer from a sense of hubris if only because we believe we can affect lives for the better?  

            So what, as librarians, is our unavoidable, outsized horror?  What is that reality that’s so big and so overwhelming that it shakes us?

              The homeless.

            Now let’s put some quantifiers on this. We’re not talking about the squatter punks, or the Woody Guthrie wannabes riding the rails. We’re not talking about the recession-hit, as-seen-on-Frontline families down on their luck. We’re not even talking about shelter kids. These are acceptable, perhaps even gentrified forms of homelessness. A sort of homelessness that, if you don’t outwardly feel for its victims then you’re at least willing to engage with it. They are the not-quite-disenfranchised.

            No, what we are talking about are the chronically homeless: The drug addicts and alcoholics and above all else mentally ill. The ones who hear voices and talk to themselves. The ones who reek of bodily fluids. The ones who ooze and bleed and pus.

            When the tragedy of the world grins down at you it’ll come in the form of a guy screaming when you tell him to get off the public computer, a woman who insists she talks to angels, or the gentleman relieving himself in nonfiction. 

             The magnitude of this horror and the feeling of helplessness that comes along with it reverberate throughout Chip Ward’s America Gone Wrong: A Slashed Safety Net Turns Libraries into Homeless Shelters. Ward’s anger is palpable. He spends at least half of the article describing in detail the regulars of his establishment. Here Ward’s prose isn’t just flippant, but at points strikes an outrageously condescending tone, as if he were gesturing towards one of his miserable patrons and saying, “Hey, would you get a load of this guy? Whackjob!” Here, for example, is Ward’s description of a patron named John:

            John is trying hard not to be noticed. He has been in trouble lately for the scabs and raw, wet spots that are spreading across his hands and face. Staff members have wondered aloud if he is contagious and asked him to get himself checked-out, but he refuses treatment. He knows he is still being tracked, thanks to the implants the nurse slipped under his skin the last time he surrendered to the clinic and its prescriptions. There are frequencies we don’t hear — but he does. Thin whistles and a subtle beeping indicate he is being followed, his eye movements tracked and recorded. He claims he falls asleep in his chair by the stairway because “the little ones” poke him in the legs with sharp objects that inject sleep-inducing potions.

           Ward, the (recently retired) assistant director of Salt Lake City Public Library, could probably serve as a living, breathing case study in the negative effects of street level bureaucracy. He dehumanizes his involuntary clientele, while casting himself in the hero’s role, seething the entire time at the pure injustice of it all.  He is, as Michael Lipsky would put it, attempting “to alter expectations about job performance.”  

            And yet if you can get past Ward and his heavy-handed language you have to grudgingly admit that he has a point. He’s not just angry at his patrons, he’s angry at the system–or lack thereof–that created them. Ward is in fact suffering—yes, suffering—from a quintessential street level quandary: How to serve a community in need with little to no resources and even less support? And this is not just any community, but a community the rest of us goes out of our way to ignore.

            Ward documents his attempts to try and solve the problem, attending conference after conference about the homeless. When the gathered social workers, counselors and therapists find out his vocation, they inevitably ask him the same question: What are you doing here? To which Ward (I like to imagine at this point he throws a chair) replies, “Where do you think they go during the day?”

            When I originally conceived of this post I’d planned to do a number of things. I was going to talk about a rash of libraries passing policies set out to essentially ban the homeless; policies that forbid such things as bathing, shaving and washing hair in public bathrooms; policies that prohibit sleeping bags or deny entry to anyone with “offensive body odor.” I was going to talk about how the problem with such policies is not just that they’re discriminatory, but go against all the ethereal ideals of what we do, what we want to do, and how we are as librarians, namely the ideal that libraries are there to serve the people i.e. everyone. And then I was going to offer up solutions, like hiring social workers and peer counselors in addition to regular staff. I was going to suggest that libraries form partnerships with various non-profits to conduct surveys and put on workshops; that they take the ALA-recommended avenue and promote and purchase materials that respectfully and honestly address homelessness issues.

            I actually did write all that, and then I sent it off to a fellow librarian for feedback. Her response was to ask whether or not I was being sarcastic. As my friend saw it, the policies profiling the homeless that I’d found so horrific weren’t just justified but necessary.

            “Are libraries supposed to be shelters to the homeless that extend its facilities to bathing and changing of clothes? And frankly, have you ever been close to a person who has not bathed in months? Anna, that odor cleared entire subway cars,” she wrote. “Where does serving the homeless end and driving out the other patrons begin?  When I worked in Brooklyn, some homeless guy [expletive] all over the bathroom floor!  No one could use it after that.”

            Spoken like a true burned-out, alienated street-level bureaucrat.

            One of my original problems with Lipsky’s 1969 Toward a Theory of Street-Level Bureaucracy had been that it’s an analysis. His objective is to create a theory about street-level bureaucracy, not offer up solutions to its ill effects. After page after page of telling us everything that’s wrong he doesn’t give us anything with which to cure it, but perhaps that’s the point and the first admission we have to make before we can call ourselves librarians: There is no cure-all.     

            Perhaps once we get past the idea of saving the world, we can just do our best to try and change it.


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