By the end of 2017, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will be closing for a three-year modernization project. The $200 million renovations will include a fifth-floor addition, a new green space, and possibly a café.
While the central library branch undergoes a major overhaul, D.C.’s unhoused community will be missing an important space to read, relax, use computers and access services.
To accommodate its hundreds of unhoused patrons, D.C. Public Libraries hired a social worker in 2014 and partners with Pathways to Housing DC, Neighborhood Legal Services Program, and U.S. Vets to provide needed services to that segment of the community. George Williams, D.C. Public Library’ Media Relations Manager, said that patrons without homes can turn to the 25 other libraries for resources when MLK closes. Though a site has not been identified yet, an interim central library will also be available during the renovations.
Robin Diener, the President of MLK Library Friends, is concerned that the city’s unhoused community is not being considered as plans for the remodel come together.
“We feel like there’s a complete lack of vision in this renovation,” she said. “It doesn’t address homelessness at all.”
Diener and the rest of the Friends of the Library held a conference on the intersection of public libraries in and homelessness in 2014, then drafted a report of their findings. In the report they recommend the creation of a center for Readers and Writers that would be used for adult education, larger, more accommodating restrooms with paid staff to direct unhoused people to places where they can bathe, a café to be staffed by people who have experienced homelessness and a center for employment and workforce development.
The Library Friends hoped their report would spur discussion with the Board of Library Trustees and other decision makers about the needs of people experiencing homelessness, but the issue was largely ignored, according to Diener.
One library patron experiencing homelessness, Timothy Heinz, uses the library often to work on his manuscript.
Heinz is writing a book about his life and finds inspiration for characters in other library patrons he sees. He plans on going to other library branches to work when MLK closes, but will miss the central branch’s prime location.
“As far as convenience, this [library] is the one. The research that I need to do is right here,” Heinz said.
Another homeless patron sitting with Heinz comes to the library for downtime between appointments. While he’s there he likes to read and search for jobs. He uses the United Planning Organization’s shuttle service to get to and from MLK.
Heinz and his friend are only two of many people experiencing homelessness who use the library almost every day.
At daytime service centers, people experiencing homelessness can find the resources they used at the MLK Library while its closed. Currently, the District has one day shelter in Northeast, next to the Adams Place shelter. There, people experiencing homelessness can find case management, education on substance abuse and health, shower and laundry facilities, computer access and mid-day lunch. The center is highly regarded for its wealth of resources, however, its location is less than convenient for many unhoused D.C. residents.
For that reason, the Department of Human Services (DHS) is planning to set up another daytime service center downtown, but has yet to find a location, according to Dora Taylor, Public Information Officer for DHS.
“As soon as we’re able to … we’ll begin renovations and open up a more conveniently located site,” Taylor said.