Alan comes to the library every day.

He loves to read, but he has other reasons, too.

"It's one of the few places people don't bother you," the 48-year-old said, sitting on the bench outside the Central Branch of the Mesa County Library last week and waiting for the doors to open.

As soon as the library opens, he heads inside, grabs a book off a shelf and goes upstairs above the fiction section, in the sunny spot on the mezzanine.

This morning he's a little early. He usually gets to his favorite spot when the second set of bells starts ringing at the church across the street. He'll stay put until he walks downtown for lunch.

The thriller he pulled from the shelf still has his bookmark saving the spot where he stopped reading the day before. It's an advertisement for a university, with photos of smiling young adults in exotic destinations. He removes it, reading the words aloud from the bookmark, "Where will you go?"

That's a good question for Alan.

Today he's going to the soup kitchen, and to try to get back on his feet, and then he'll return to the river, where he will spend the night. But he always starts his days here at the central library, a safe place where he can just exist.

***

Libraries have become the front line for a variety of social issues — drug addiction, mental illness and homelessness — because their arms are always open.

The jail and homeless shelter are full, the beds are occupied at the local psychiatric hospital, but the library is open.

Libraries have had to adapt to accommodate this part of society because their mission is to serve the public — the whole public — without alienating segments of the population. While their core mission is to provide information, they're also a steadfast democratic institution, where it doesn't matter if you're a millionaire or you have nothing, you're welcome.

Negotiating this challenging dynamic hasn't been easy, but Mesa County Libraries has built a culture over time that's centered on compassion and consistent expectations for all patrons, whether they're homeless or not.

This forefront is the topic of a just-released movie called "The Public," directed by Emilio Estevez, who also stars in the film. The library community has highly anticipated the movie's release and the trailer has made the rounds. It's hard to find someone who works at a library who hasn't seen it.

"The Public" tells the story of a group of homeless individuals who take over a Cincinnati library in protest during a winter storm because a shelter is full and there's nowhere else to go.

It's a film that advocates like Ryan Dowd hope will get communities talking about homelessness.

"It's an issue that society needs to be talking about," said Dowd, the creator of homelesslibrary.com and the author of the recently released book "The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness." "It opens up a conversation on an issue that really can't be hidden."

***

At the Mesa County Library, staff has quarterly safety trainings that often involve homeless issues. But it's a topic that is coming up more and more frequently.

"Somebody is talking about it probably daily," said Bob Kretschman, library spokesman.

It's something librarians across the country have dealt with — something they didn't learn while they were studying for their profession in school. The increasing demand led the American Library Association to publish Dowd's new book to help provide training and assistance to library staff.

Libraries are important places for people who have nowhere else to go. While their core mission is to offer information to patrons, libraries have increasingly taken on other services to meet the needs of the communities they serve. Librarians are adamant about their role in the public sphere — with no exceptions or exclusions.

Some libraries arm their staffs with Narcan for drug overdoses. Others act as food banks. Some hand out hygiene kits and give people quarters for showers at nearby shelters. And some have started hiring social workers to help patrons with access to services like rehab, shelters and jobs.

"I think that librarians are connectors," said Pam Smith, president of the Public Library Association and director of the Anythink Libraries in Adams County. "We want to be part of the solution."

Smith said she feels librarians are wired to help people, whether they're looking for a book or something else.

She's found that many of the homeless patrons her library serves don't fit the stereotypes people have about the homeless population.

Smith covered this in a TedTalk she delivered in 2013, "What to expect from public libraries in the 21st century," in which she told the story of a boy who asked to use an extra room at the library for a week to put together a puppet show. He just wanted a space to create.

The boy came back weeks later to tell staff that he had some news — that his dad got a job and they were moving out of the homeless shelter. He told them he wanted to say goodbye and thank you.

"You never know who is going to come through your doors and you never know what people need, and we always try to say yes as much as possible," she said.

Like Smith's experience with the boy, most people wouldn't guess that Alan is homeless, unless they looked closely and noticed he's wearing two pairs of jeans on his thin frame and his vintage Air Force flight jacket pockets are filled with his most important possessions. He's well-groomed, his clothes are clean and he doesn't have a shopping cart full of stuff or a cardboard sign to panhandle for spare change. His clear blue eyes look through a clean pair of prescription lenses, and don't have the telltale signs of drug or alcohol use. His homelessness is situational, brought on by a series of events that started with the inability to work, which he hopes to change soon.

This is his 21st day in Grand Junction, and his routine consists of surviving the night camping down by the river, waking up and heading to the Catholic Outreach Day Center to shower and change clothes, and coming to the library. Most mornings, there are several folks waiting for the doors to open who are in a similar situation.

"I'd venture to guess that about half the people in here right now are homeless," he said, looking around.

Smith said she's noticed more homeless folks using libraries since the recession roughly 10 years ago.

"I think that the social net, so to speak, is becoming more fragile in some instances," she said. "Libraries are so welcoming and friendly and open. That isn't always the case in other situations."

"That's one of the things I love most about librarians," Dowd said. "This obsession with serving everyone. And this obsession with serving everyone sometimes runs into opposition from others who feel entitled to not have to witness poverty."

For patrons who don't like having homeless people using the same library they want to use — who have an "us and them" mentality — Dowd offers this: "You can exclude poverty from your home, from your space. But you can't exclude others from public spaces. You can't hide from it."

***

While Mesa County's libraries offer information to anyone who needs it, including help on accessing community resources, it's up to the patrons to take the next step. No one is going to take them to counseling or the shelter. They don't have Narcan or social workers.

So far, the library has focused on building a culture that treats everyone the same and tries to maintain the library as a space everyone wants to use. Some of those techniques came from Dowd's advice, as the library uses a video he recorded in 2013 that led to the idea for the homelessness book.

Dowd, who runs a homeless shelter called Hesed House and also created the website homelesslibrary.com, teaches people how to deal with vulnerable populations in an ethical way. He estimates he's conducted 200 live trainings across the country for library staff, and he also developed online training for a few hundred more across the U.S. and Canada. The state of North Carolina recently bought access to the training for 3,000 staff members.

Libraries have pounced on his advice centered on psychological principles, empathy and providing clear expectations and fair treatment of all patrons. He's found over the years that a system of reward and punishment, common in the rest of society, doesn't work with homeless individuals. They don't respond to authority, have a tendency to feel they've been targeted, and they're not going anywhere.

"This is not a blip on the radar," he said. "This is the new public library."

In his training sessions, Dowd often gets asked by librarians how to handle patrons who are intolerant of homelessness.

"You say, we pride ourselves on our mission to serve everyone and we take that really, really seriously," he said. "We also enforce the rules. We focus on misbehavior, not socioeconomic status."

***

Though it's not clear exactly when the Mesa County Library started having full-time security, it seems to have happened in the early 2000s. The library hired staff with prior law enforcement experience, including Greg Dokken, who retired from the Colorado State Patrol.

"We have more than 100 years of law enforcement experience on our security team," said Tim Davis, the facilities manager who supervises security as well as the building maintenance and custodial services. The library budgeted more than $133,000 for security costs this year, according to Kretschman.

Dokken said many of the techniques he learned on patrol apply at his library job, minus the part about giving tickets and carrying a gun. He's learned a lot about human behavior during his career, and he knows there are techniques for handling situations.

Dokken asks for compliance instead of ordering people to do something. He finds he receives the same amount of respect that he delivers, most of the time. He's careful about his body language, tone of voice and volume of speaking, and to avoid situations where the person he's addressing might be embarrassed. And he doesn't sneak up on people who are sleeping — he makes a lot of noise so they wake up before he reaches them.

"You have to have a balanced temperament," Dokken said, noting that a good part of his job now is education as well as enforcement, and his goal is compliance, not punishment.

Dokken encounters people from all walks of life at the library. Some days are pretty boring and he feels like the Maytag repairman. Other days he uses compassionate tactics to enforce the expectations at the library so it's a nice place for everyone to exist.

That means sometimes he has to pull someone aside and tell them they need to take care of hygiene issues. It's a tricky subject, so he tries not to call attention to the person. He'll talk to them discreetly and tell them, "Hey, I think it's time to change your socks," and let the person know they're welcome to return once they've bathed and washed their clothes.

Most of the time, he and the other security officers can redirect people with no problem. And a review of two months of security log incidents, numbering about 250 separate interactions with patrons, reveals the majority of their issues involve smoking or sleeping, which aren't allowed on library property.

Other times, repeat offenders or patrons who refuse to follow the rules get banned from the library. The longest amount of time anyone can be banned is a year, and then the banned person can write an appeal to the library director.

"It takes a lot to get banned for a year," Davis said.

The most recent example involved a patron who stole more than $800 in library property. Since Dokken started working in security two and a half years ago, he estimates there have been 10 or fewer year-long bans during that time.

These restrictions are attached to user accounts, so if banned patrons attempt to log in to a computer or check out media, library staff is alerted.

Davis has been at the library for more than seven years, and during that time they haven't had anything violent or physical happen when dealing with patrons who get kicked out after violating the code of conduct.

"That speaks volumes as to how good our security guards are," he said. "That they can de-escalate situations and avoid that."

The reconfigured physical arrangement of the library is something that has changed since the building's remodel was finished five years ago, something Kretschman credits for helping to establish clear lines of sight and encouraging or discouraging patrons from gathering in certain areas.

Meeting rooms have glass windows, library staff can see each other from their stations and the children's area was moved to a place that doesn't invite other traffic or loitering, with a dedicated entrance. The children's section used to be more exposed and families had to walk past a long seating area where some people sat all day.

"We eliminated the nooks and crannies where people can hide," Kretschman said, noting that he knows of folks who didn't use the library prior to the remodel. "These are folks that have children and they came back to the library."

The code of conduct is very specific and doesn't allow certain activities, such as smoking or sleeping, and also doesn't allow patrons to bring in more than two bags of items, which keeps homeless patrons with carts of stuff from bringing them into the library. The rules are the same for everyone, and it's about being consistent and fair.

"It's about building relationships," Davis said.

Over time, the regular users at the library, including the homeless patrons, have started to enforce the rules themselves. Dokken recalled a recent situation where a homeless patron saw a neighboring computer user eating Cheetos, which isn't allowed around technology. The patron told the Cheeto-eater, "Hey, you can't do that here," and put an end to it himself.

Building that culture of clear expectations with an eye for compassion is key, Dowd said.

"Be respectful," he said. "All I ask is that you treat them no better, and no worse, than individuals who aren't homeless."

Recommended for you