When the stunning new Billie Jean King Main Library was dedicated in the late summer of 2019, it was hailed as a cultural and architectural gem, a gleaming testament to Long Beach’s commitment to revitalizing its Downtown civic center.
Inside the $48-million glass and wood structure, there would be room for 300,000 books and an array of community services, including a family learning center.
Hometown tennis great and civil rights leader Billie Jean King told the thousands of people who gathered for the grand opening that she was humbled to have her name affixed to a beloved institution “where we can all come together as one vibrant community.”
“My library is your library,” she proclaimed with a hand raised above her head. “This is our library!”
But missing from the crowd on that joyous day was a growing constituency for the new library, one that would likely take King’s stirring words most to heart—Long Beach’s Downtown homeless community.
Since the library’s gala opening, the city’s visions of urban renewal have been tested repeatedly by the realities of urban life. Issues surrounding unhoused patrons at the Billie Jean King Main Library and other branches have forced the system on a daily basis to balance one of its bedrock principles—that all are welcome—with concerns for safety amid the stacks.
With Long Beach’s homeless services hub miles away in a Westside industrial pocket, the city’s libraries represent the only indoor spaces where unhoused people can charge their phones, access clean restrooms, use the internet and find refuge from the elements.
Each morning, it’s not unusual to see people with bedrolls and backpacks huddled beneath the Downtown library’s broad overhangs, waiting for the doors to open. The numbers swelled with last winter’s heavy downpours and frigid temperatures.
A year ago, the Billie Jean King Main Library was forced to close after a series of incidents involving individuals experiencing severe mental health episodes. It reopened a month later with new security measures, including police patrols. But officers are still frequently summoned by library staffers fearful for their safety and that of their patrons.
Now city officials are moving forward with a new approach to help frontline librarians, who have been trained to de-escalate conflicts but do not have the expertise or resources to cope with high-need patrons, especially those with severe mental illnesses.
The City Council has authorized the city attorney to draft a municipal law that would put enforcement teeth into the system’s existing rules of conduct. This could mean, for example, that anyone who ignored an expulsion order from the library staff could potentially face a misdemeanor trespassing charge.
“We’re really trying to do our best to ensure that there is a standard of safety within all of our libraries,” explains Cathy De Leon, director of library services.
De Leon says behavioral problems for some unhoused patrons “are kind of a chronic issue, and we’ve had repeated issues with them for some time. For some people, it’s just a one-day thing. Really, the point of all this is to try to just develop more clear guidelines.”
The point is not, she says, to find ways to banish unhoused people from the library.
“We’ve always embraced and welcomed patrons experiencing homelessness within public libraries because we know that it’s a public space. We treat everybody the same. We really believe in that,” De Leon says. “We’re really no different from any other urban library.”
The current rules, rolled out in 2021, prohibit drugs and alcohol, making loud disruptive noises and sleeping or lying on furniture or the floor. The long list of rules also requires that patrons “reasonably manage their hygiene/odor,” wear sufficient clothing and comply with any reasonable request from library employees. Failure to comply could lead to library bans ranging from 24 hours to one year.
The proposed amendment to the city’s municipal code, which is expected to be completed this fall, will also give accused violators an avenue to appeal their expulsions.
Underlying the push for stronger, enforceable rules are the dangers librarians across the country face from mentally ill patrons, sometimes with consequences that have sent a shudder through their ranks.
In late 2018, Sacramento librarian Amber Clark, 41, was fatally shot 11 times at close range outside the North Natomas Library by a man she had barred for harassing visitors. Just two months earlier, he had been arrested for threatening librarians in Missouri. The 58-year-old man, who had a history of mental illness, was convicted of first-degree murder last year in Clark’s killing.
“It was traumatic for everyone,” Susan Jones, manager of the Billie Jean King library, says of the Sacramento shooting. “But it really made us think…You see stuff on the news all the time, these incidents, they’re everywhere now. And so if we need to build this foundation [of enforceable rules] for a worst-case scenario, we should just do it.”
For possible models, Long Beach is looking to Santa Monica and Redondo Beach, which already have passed municipal codes to make their library conduct rules enforceable.
Santa Monica’s municipal code states: “Any person who fails or refuses to leave the facility after being given the requisite notice, warning and direction to leave, shall be guilty of a misdemeanor which shall be punishable by a fine not exceeding one thousand dollars per violation, or by imprisonment in the County Jail for a period not exceeding six months, or by both such fine and imprisonment.”
Mayor Rex Richardson said in a recent interview that he wasn’t sure what would be included in the city’s ordinance, “but what I’ll tell you is, I support making sure that people feel safe in our libraries and that they’re accessible.”
Long Beach homeless advocate Christine Barry understands the concerns of librarians but says passing a new code-of-conduct ordinance merely underscores the city’s strategic failings in addressing homelessness.
“The reason a lot of people are in the library is to get out of the elements because we’re not providing anywhere else for them to be,” says Barry, a 71-year-old retired substance abuse counselor who has helped homeless people off the street through her organization, Ashlee’s Homeless Fund.
“The thing is, you give them nothing—no bathrooms, no showers, et cetera—and then you get mad at them when they misbehave?” she says. “The next thing we know, someone who is ‘acting out’ is somebody who starts crying and they’ve made too much noise.”
A challenging chapter for the new library
Although the closure of the Billie Jean King Main Library last year generated numerous headlines as tighter security was put in place, the continuing problems have provided momentum for the push to enact an enforceable code of conduct.
Between Aug. 1, 2022, to Jan. 30 of this year, 111 calls for police service were made from the Downtown library, according to Long Beach Police Department records provided to the Post. Thirty-seven of those calls were to report an “unwelcome guest,” 13 were for battery, one was for assault with a deadly weapon, five were for fights and one was to report a person with a gun—to name just some of the reported offenses.
Outside the Downtown library, there have been two separate incidents in which glass bottles were thrown at employees.
In June of last year, an unidentified man hurled a bottle at two senior librarians as they were walking toward the south terrace entrance. The bottle “shattered all over,” says library manager Jones, who describes the incident as “scary.”
Three months later, someone heaved a bottle at the library manager’s secretary while she was waiting to direct staff from City Hall into the library for an event.
Although no one was injured in either incident, Jones says these kinds of attacks “just stick in your mind.”
Just two months ago, in June, the Downtown library was forced to close for the day after an argument between patrons escalated into one man pepper spraying another. Meanwhile, a few miles away in Cambodia Town, the doors of the Mark Twain Neighborhood Library were locked for nearly a month because of staffing shortages and “chronic” patron-related security concerns, says library services director De Leon.
The widespread frustrations of library workers and their executive team emerged into full public view during a City Council meeting just before the King library’s initial closure. They were there with a parade of other union-represented city employees to press for, among other things, higher wages and better working conditions.
“It is taxing and stressful work that has begun to take a toll,” De Leon said during her presentation to the council. “More than ever, our staff is in need of wellness and mental health support to cope with the direct and vicarious trauma they experience on a frequent basis.”
One librarian, identifying herself only as Michelle, put it more bluntly:
“I’ve seen a lot of my colleagues leave the library because it’s not worth it. I don’t work as a general librarian, I work as a social worker, medical consultant, lawyer, teacher, technician, law enforcement—what else can we do?”
The City Council later voted to pass $5.8 million in economic relief for city employees, with library workers receiving a one-time-only cost-of-living adjustment.
Ziba Perez, who worked as a senior librarian Downtown for two years, until 2017, says challenges with the homeless population have long existed because of the library’s unique role as a place where people of all backgrounds and circumstances are welcomed equally.
“We’d have to clear the front sometimes because, getting in, there were encampments in front of our opening doors and that didn’t feel safe,” Perez says.
But at times, she says, she found it morally difficult to enforce some of the rules of conduct, such as the one that bans sleeping in the library.
“When I would tell patrons—the most vulnerable patrons—‘I’m sorry, no sleeping in the library,’ they would get very angry and say: ‘I’ve been up all night. This is a safe space for me to sleep, just let me sleep, I’m not hurting anyone.’ And I really felt bad.”
She recalled one time when an unhoused patron, who suffered from irritable bowel syndrome, had soiled a chair.
“As the in-charge librarian for the day, I had to let them know they had to leave the library for the day. So I guess that’s part of why I didn’t last as a senior [librarian],” she says, explaining that, after two years in the job, she took a demotion at her branch to avoid such decisions.
“I was like, ‘Maybe right now, I don’t want to deal with the hard stuff. I want to just be a librarian.’”
Perez ultimately left the Long Beach Public Library for a job elsewhere, which offered better money and more social services to unhoused patrons.
‘Nobody’s helping me’
It was a drizzly spring morning after a night of heavy rain and some two-dozen people were clustered beneath the Billie Jean King library’s overhang.
At 10 a.m., they filed into the warmth of the expansive building with its exposed Douglas fir beams, central atrium and flood of natural light.
Most headed upstairs, where they grabbed seats in front of a row of computers or sat in blue cushioned chairs along the windows that overlook Lincoln Park, where large numbers of homeless people congregate. City officials had hoped the new library would revitalize the park but that goal remains elusive.
Settling in for the day, many stashed rolled sleeping mats and backpacks under their tables, and plugged phones, computers and tablets into available outlets. There was a noticeable lack of hygiene.
Periods of quiet were mixed with moments of boisterous conversation. One man launched into a loud blow-by-blow account of a recent fight he’d had Downtown. Another shared that he’d been involved in a similar violent encounter.
A library staffer pushed a cart of books past them, eyes forward.
At a nearby table, a woman in stained, loose-fitting clothes sat quietly, writing in a hardbound notebook while she occasionally gazed through the towering windows as rain began to fall. With nut-brown hair tied back in a low ponytail, she looked to be around 30. Her bedding and belongings were gathered at her feet.
“Excuse me, will you watch my things for a moment?” she asked a man charging several devices, who loudly refused her request. She apparently needed to use the restroom.
Upon her return, she agreed to be interviewed but asked that her name be kept confidential.
“Right now, I am homeless,” she says. “And for me, the library is a space to go out of what I am living by now.”
She says she spent the previous night under the library’s overhang as the city was pounded by its 12th atmospheric river storm of the season. It was the first time she’d been allowed inside the library in months.
She says she was banned for six months for exhibiting “bad behavior.” The banishment, she says, had come after she threw another unhoused person’s books on the library floor in a fit of frustration.
But on this rainy day, she says, the penalty was lifted so she could escape the storm.
“My situation here is so difficult to explain, and I don’t want to explain it because it’s personal,” she says of her library run-in. “But I was so mad and the government was not helping me and the police were not helping me. Nobody’s helping me.”
The library’s director, when asked whether the woman had in fact been banned, said she was unaware of it.
The only place in Long Beach where unhoused people can shower, get connected with a case worker and find access to a shelter bed, if one is available, is at the city’s Multi-Service Center.
But its location on the Westside near the 710 Freeway makes it a difficult haul for most of Downtown’s homeless population, especially for those who are disabled, elderly or without a car. Tucked into an industrial zone of port facilities and mechanic shops, the route there is dangerous by foot or bicycle because of heavy truck and car traffic.
From the Billie Jean King Main Library, the center is a 5 mile walk and requires crossing Anaheim Street’s bridge over the Los Angeles River, an area designated as a “high-injury corridor” for traffic collisions and fatalities. Google maps, in fact, warns that the route may include “sections not suited for walking.”
Or for a wheelchair. On one recent day, a Post reporter witnessed a woman in a motorized chair nearly get hit by a semi-truck as she made her way to the service hub.
On public transportation, meanwhile, the $1.50 one-way journey takes about 20 minutes, with eight stops and then a walk through the industrial area to find the center. There are no signs pointing the way.
The city recognizes that the Multi-Service Center isn’t easy to get to. So on rotating days of the week, it provides a “Mobile Access Center” at the Downtown Library. From their white van, city staffers offer intake services, help with obtaining vital documents and provide referrals to shelter and mental health resources.
“We try to have stuff so that people can stay engaged at the MSC and we’re working on a few dozen other things,” says Paul Duncan, the city’s Homeless Services Bureau Manager. “But it’s never going to be the level of what’s available at the library for people.”
Unlike some other cities, what Long Beach does not offer at the main library are portable showers to help unhoused individuals comply with the rule instructing them to manage their hygiene and odor. Duncan says the city is now exploring ways to provide this service.
City officials are also hopeful that the lives of unhoused people in and around the Billie Jean King library will be improved through a new $5.3 million state grant Long Beach received in August. The money is intended to provide services and help encampment residents in neighboring Lincoln Park transition into housing.
End of a promising program
In 2019, to help support overburdened library employees, a Social Work Internship Program was launched.
The collaboration between the city’s health department and library services placed graduate interns in the library—one from Cal State Long Beach and the other from USC. Funded through a $150,000 grant from First 5 Los Angeles and the California Endowment, it was inspired by the San Francisco Public Library, the first in the nation to add a social worker to its staff.
Over a 7-month period, the social work interns logged 143 interactions that resulted in patrons at two libraries receiving one or more types of support or referrals, according to a report on the program’s highlights. Of those who interacted with social workers, 43% returned for help.
One staff member quoted in the report said the social work interns brought “calmness” to the library. Well over 90% of library staffers credited the program with having a positive effect on their work lives and urged that it be continued.
Says Hanna Stribling, a mental health coordinator with the city who collaborated with De Leon on the Social Work Internship Program: “Systems are made up of people. So when the people experience trauma, then the system ultimately suffers as well.”
Despite the praise and encouraging numbers, the grant ended in 2020, shortly after the COVID-19 pandemic forced the closure of the libraries. No new funding for the social work program was provided.
Instead, last September, the city’s homeless bureau hired three “health education” workers for the Billie Jean King and Mark Twain libraries—those most affected by issues related to homelessness. Working three days a week, their duties consist of building relationships with unhoused individuals to help create service plans and obtain vital documents. They also are tasked with helping library staff de-escalate difficult situations.
The position does not require a background or education in social work, although those were listed as “desirable qualifications” for the job. The primary qualifications for applicants are that they have two years of experience in street outreach or project oversight of a social or human services program.
De Leon, while grateful for the education workers, says she is encouraged that a new position for the Downtown library was approved in the fiscal year 2024 budget. De Leon says that this person would potentially oversee the education workers, engage directly with individuals in need of resources, help de-escalate situations and assist staff in coping with traumatic situations.
“The reality is that people just need more help,” De Leon says. “Some of the issues just go beyond what the health educator is really able to kind of handle.”
Karen Pickard-Four heads Los Angeles’ Office of Library Experience, which was created in 2021 after a five-year process of conducting surveys, working with a consultant and creating recommendations for how the libraries can provide a safe and welcoming environment for everyone.
Currently, the Los Angeles city library system has a mental health clinician available one day a week at the Central Library in downtown Los Angeles. But Pickard-Four says officials are working on a plan that would station mental health and social workers inside libraries.
She says Los Angeles isn’t trying to convert its libraries into mental health clinics, but is simply committed to “providing a service for people who are already at the library.”
“Imagine if you opened your door and let everyone in—that’s what we do every day,” she says. “It’s still one of the last places that you don’t need to buy anything to be in or to stay in. And I think that’s a beautiful thing.”
Reporter Alicia Robinson contributed to this report.