Tuesday, December 22, 2015


4:30 on Monday afternoon. The shortest day of the year and it's almost dark as I walk the two blocks toward the Central Branch of the Denver Public Library. It's been unseasonably warm, over 50, for most of the day, but now the sun is going down and the air has a definite nip.

I am a woman on a mission. As a first round judge for CYBILS poetry, I had 48 books to read. I'm down to the last two, and according to the online catalogue, I can find them here. I locate the last picture book in the children's section, then head over to the Young Adult room to read the final book, a novel in verse.

I am surprised, on this Monday night,  to see that the YA room is crowded. Almost every one of the twenty overstuffed chairs around the room is full. They are not full of adolescent readers though. There appear to be very few of those.

Instead, the chairs are filled with homeless people, most carrying suitcases, backpacks, or overstuffed plastic grocery bags. Many are dozing, probably preparing themselves for a long, chilly night on the streets of Denver. A few are reading the newspaper. One elderly gentleman has made himself comfortable in the magazine area, and carries on an animated conversation, seemingly with himself. A security guard leans against the information desk, watching all that is going on.

I find my book and then attempt to find a place to sit. There are a few chairs on the very edge of the room. Sitting in one of them, however, would leave me with my back to the room. I'm not sure I want to sit facing that way. Finally I find a chair closer to the middle of the room. The man sitting closest to me has clearly not had a bath for a while and the odor is strong.

I have a hard time focusing on my book.

I am not bothered by the fact that there are homeless people in the library. It makes perfect sense. The library is open until eight on Monday and Tuesday nights. It's free. You don't have to buy a cup of coffee or a meal to stay there. The library is warm and it's dry. The chairs are soft and would be comfortable for sleeping. There are restrooms with toilets and running water. The security guards pretty much guarantee that the library will be safe.

And I am very bothered by the fact that there are so many homeless people in the library. What are their stories? Do the librarians know them by name? How do they feel about having their whole room filled with homeless people? Why do the homeless in Denver have no where else to go? Have they eaten? Where will they go when the library closes at 8:00? Are any of them receiving the mental health care that many appear to need? Can we not do better as a city?

There is one young man that bears an uncanny resemblance to my older son. He wears a brown camouflage army jacket, carries a tan plastic bag. I watch him as he peruses the new nonfiction shelf. I wonder if he reads. I wonder if he has eaten. I wonder how long he has been on the streets. I wonder if he has a mom.

And then I think about my sons. This has been a year of poor choice after poor choice after poor choice. I have threatened, more than once, to evict my boys if they don't stop smoking pot and find more worthwhile ways to spend their time. It's not hard to imagine them living on the streets, unwashed, unfed, unloved. People keep telling me I need to use tough love, but I wonder if I could ever consign my boys to a situation like this.

I finally read. When I finish my book and leave, a little after 7, most of the homeless people are still dozing in the chairs. The kid who looks like my son is leaving with a friend, another kid about his age. I wonder where they are going, where they will spend the night.

I walk back to my car. Definitely not the night I was expecting at the library.


Diane Anderson said...

In the 80's my husband worked in the Multnomah Public Library in Portland, OR. The situation was much the same. We were foster parents and knew that teens could end up on the streets. Sad that so many years later it is a problem that our cities, our nation, our families still struggle to find a better answer.

Linda B said...

I try to tell myself stories about the homeless I see, but I think I might put too much into them, maybe too romantic, I admit it. Those are the stories that are told on the news, the nice ones. I don't know the answer to your query, and I wish I did, or someone could discover it. I'm sorry it's been a tough year for you and your sons. Sometimes it takes so long for kids to make positive change, and I hope that they do for their sakes and for yours. I admire you for staying there in the room, and for thinking of them, wishing for different.

The Purple Lady said...

You call to mind many questions for me, too, in this slice of yours. What can be done? Who can make it happen? I wonder how I can make a real difference. Thank you for sharing this slice of information.

Ramona said...

What a thought filled slice. Your willingness to stay in that room, surrounded by those who were seeking solace and warmth speaks volumes about your character. I hope you managed to finish reading the last of your CYBILS. Interesting how your search for a book led to this reflection. Blessings for a restful, relaxing, holiday season. And for those boys to recognize how lucky they are to have found you!

Mary Lee said...

I finished Between The World And Me on the drive from Denver to Burlington. So harsh, so brutally honest, so very very very true about the broken system we call our country. What can we do? What WILL we do?

Elisabeth Ellington said...

I love the Central Branch so much. I often visit when I'm in Denver. When my mother lived there, I checked out books too--and I do miss having that privilege! I have wondered about the large homeless population in Denver too. When we took my son to the Rockies game this summer, he was overwhelmed by the number of homeless and had so many questions that were difficult to answer. I can just imagine all the advice you receive in favor of tough love. I hear some of the same nonsense--about "setting boundaries" and "showing that kid who's boss." Easy to say when trauma isn't your boss--as it's ours. I truly believe that showing compassion, love, and grace is what we're called to do--for as long as we can do it.