Ati Powell was on her front porch across from the Sarnia Public Library recently when she saw multiple people climbing down from the library’s upper storey emergency exit.
“It was obvious they were homeless and having sex,” Powell said. “Security had to chase them out of there.
“We see it quite a lot. It’s okay that people find shelter at the library. I believe it’s a public building and should be for everyone, but there are rules and it’s not fair to the families and kids who use the library when there are drugs and sexual activity.”
That is exactly the dilemma facing police and library officials as they work to keep Sarnia’s main library branch a safe place for patrons and staff, while allowing a significant number of homeless people to use it too.
After all, it’s a public building intended for the entire community, says Sgt. Miro Soucek of Sarnia Police Services.
“It seems to have eased up this last week but our IMPACT (Integrated Mobile Police & Crisis) Team has been responding to complaints there nearly every day,” he said.
Complaints range from inappropriate behaviour, like what Powell witnessed, to loud disruptions, camping out under the overhang on the north end of the building, drug use, and urinating in public.
“It’s not a crime to be homeless,” said Soucek. “It’s not something we should look down on. So, if they are quiet, behaving appropriately, and don’t leave things behind, we have no problem.
“But when we see a guy riding around on his bicycle with a pickaxe, there’s a problem.”
For the most part, people experiencing homelessness and using the library keep to themselves.
But an unprecedented number of homeless who sometimes have mental health or substance abuse issues, prompted Lambton County – which operates the library – to hire a full time security guard last fall.
There was escalating violence, threats and inappropriate behaviour inside the library and the washrooms, said Andrew Meyer, the county’s general manager of cultural services.
During library hours, the guard is seated inside the front entrance and has made a significant difference in the number of incidents, especially in the washrooms, Meyer said.
“Security is providing a measure of comfort to our regular patrons and our staff,” he said. “We are trying to create a welcoming environment for all.”
During the pandemic the large outside overhang at the library was often used as shelter by people experiencing homelessness. At times, there were small encampments with tents and tarps.
That continued throughout this past winter but is less of a problem now, according to Meyer.
“It’s still an ongoing concern for us though because the overhang is in close proximity to the children’s department,” he said. His staff has initiated preliminary talks with the city – which owns the building – about making changes to the exterior design to discourage people sleeping overnight or using the building’s alcoves.
Sgt. Soucek says Sarnia Police are suggesting iron fencing around the overhang area to reclaim the space for the children’s department.
He is hopeful that daily constructive interaction between police and the homeless around the library will help, but said there’s no easy solution.
“This is so complex. Illicit drug use around the library is a problem. At one point, we found 13 people sleeping rough in Veteran’s Park (behind the library),” said Soucek.
“We care about their wellbeing. It’s important we keep people safe whether they are homeless or not.
“We’re trying to help them find a place to go.”
Ati Powell said she has a lot of compassion for people sleeping rough but she also wants families to feel secure using the library.
“I’m pleased there’s a security guard in the building. I’m happy for the library staff,” she said. “I just want to see things improve for everyone.”
At the very least, Powell wants the city to install crash gates at the emergency exits to keep people from blocking them. And she wants port-a-potties distributed around town so people without a home can have quick access to a washroom.
That could stop people from defecating in public places and in the doorways of local businesses, she said.
“It’s a matter of human dignity.”