Government

'Most diverse place in Cedar Rapids?' The library

Challenges come as it embraces its role as being open for all

Heather Meyer-Boothby, a reference librarian, walks around the Cedar Rapids Public Library during her shift last Monday.
Heather Meyer-Boothby, a reference librarian, walks around the Cedar Rapids Public Library during her shift last Monday. Meyer-Boothby sees her role as one that goes beyond helping patrons with library materials. She wants to library to be an open, accessible space for everyone. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — Heather Meyer-Boothby, a reference librarian at the Cedar Rapids Public Library, earned a degree in library sciences from North Carolina Central University, but her recent trainings have focused instead on mental health first aid, de-escalation, homelessness and implicit bias.

She also must know where to find local services like meals, housing and a hot shower. As she walks the library floor, those skills can prove valuable in serving patrons and creating a welcoming space for users of all types — from affluent children and adults to populations facing a variety of daily challenges.

“I try to make everyone feel comfortable regardless of their economic position,” said Meyer-Boothby, who also leads classes on internet safety, job searches and entering the workforce. “The library is the most diverse place in Cedar Rapids. ... My belief is diversity is good and to be exposed to different people is good. But are there conflicts? Yes.”

The downtown Cedar Rapids Public Library, 450 Fifth Ave. SE, like many urban libraries, increasingly has become a magnet for people lacking other places to go and who at times bring along behavioral problems and drug and alcohol abuse, adding tension over who uses the library and how. While some come for books or computers, some are there for meetings or lunch at the cafe, and others are there to hang out, occupying popular seating areas to chat, read or sleep.

As library use increases — visits, circulation, program attendance and computer use are all up, according to officials — its leadership is devoting more resources to managing the needs of patrons while trying to keep the peace.

The library is seeking an additional $40,000 in the fiscal 2021 budget earmarked for security. The money, which is expected to be approved later this month, could help extend a new social services navigator position, staff training, additional security staff during peak times and technology to better track and respond to needs, Library Director Dara Schmidt last month told the City Council.

“Increased usage is absolutely our goal,” Schmidt said. “We want a library full of useful things for our citizens, and we want people using the library ... More people can sometimes bring more issues and the library continues to grow and to adjust to those community needs.”

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Schmidt describes the library as a reflection of its community and open to all. She notes the library is seeing more people in crisis or close to it, questioning the access to mental health care.

“A lot of these larger state and federal policies come to a head at the public library because we’re the space that’s open to all,” she said. “If you can’t get support, and you’ve got no place else to go, you are going to come someplace where we’re here for you, we’re nice to you, it’s comfortable. And, that’s great. That’s what we want to be. But when you’re having a good day, that’s good. When you’re having a bad day, that can be a challenge for everyone.”

Schmidt noted library staff use an empathetic enforcement approach to the rules, which forbid unreasonable noise, abusive language, sleeping, monopolizing furniture, weapons, being under the influence of drugs or alcohol and offensive body odor, among other items. Rather than approach inappropriate behavior in a confrontational way, staff are coached to use the tack of asking “What can I do for you? How can we work on this together?” Schmidt said.

Meyer-Boothby said a concern is kicking someone out into a more dangerous situation, although she notes they begin an escalating enforcement policy when they see violations.

Schmidt said the library does not have a good system for tracking violations to know whether more are occurring or if certain types of behaviors are becoming more prevalent. She noted at any given time, the library lists about 10 people banned from entry. Extreme and repeated violations of the rules can lead to a ban of up to one year, she said.

A review of calls for service shows Cedar Rapids police visited the library 128 times since the start of the year, about 13 times per week, including for calls reporting assault, harassment, trespass, theft, weapons, medical needs, disturbance and more routine matters.

“I’ve grown worried about the downtown library, where disorderly teenagers and adults alike run rampant,” patron Patrick Parks said in a message to The Gazette. “I don’t feel safe bringing my family there. I’ve witnessed fist fights and shouting matches result in no lasting consequences for anyone involved, and seen those same people return time and again to bother others and put innocent bystanders in harm’s way.”

On a comment card received by the library, a 65-year-old woman said the library “looks and smells like a homeless camp. Sleeping folks in chairs, etc. I absolutely would not use any of the restrooms. We checked out a few books and left. We will be using Marion/Hiawatha libraries from now on.”

Others, however, are complimentary.

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A man identifying himself as a daily visitor noted “all of the smiling faces at the library,” and the kindness and support of staff in finding what he is looking for.

A woman wrote of her appreciation, noting her brother was homeless in Arizona. The library there was his refuge and connection with the world, she wrote, explaining that difficult circumstances could lead to him being disheveled or smelly.

“The library is a public service and my heart sings to come into this one,” she wrote. “Here in Cedar Rapids I am heart warmed by how your staff and library treat the homeless. Hats off to you.”

Joe Melsha, 57, who said he does not have a home, said he visits daily to “roll cigarettes and stay out of the elements.”

He keeps to himself, is quiet and urges others to not leave a mess. This week he sat on the edge of the first-floor stacks by large windows, twisting rolling tobacco into cigarettes with several personal belongings filling a table. His spot overlooked Greene Square and the library entrance where he parks his bike and trailer packed with possessions.

The library is one of the only places he can find shelter and a bathroom, he said.

He agrees behaviors can get out of hand — describing it as an “outpatient psych ward” at times — but for some, “we don’t have any other place to go.”

Denise Yuengel, 58, who said she recently lost her housing, estimates she visits the library at least twice a week and estimated 20 to 30 regulars visit daily.

She said the more “collected” people look out for those less stable, but it doesn’t always work. She advocates for a centrally located day center that might have a pot of coffee, newspapers, donated books, a place to charge phones and close access to social services.

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“Should homeless be allowed to come here?” Yuengel asked. “Yes, but this shouldn’t be the only place we can go.”

Comments: (319) 398-8310; brian.morelli@thegazette.com

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