Free to all*

*These noble words hang over the Boston Public Library's entrance. But some say the open-door policy may come at the expense of patrons' comfort and safety.

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ric Kahn
Globe Staff / June 15, 2008

It didn't happen in a dark alley, in the dead of night, with nobody in sight. "I got mugged," said 50-year-old English High School teacher Art Garcia, "in the Copley library."

It happened on a Saturday last month.

At around two in the afternoon.

As he talked with three teenagers he was tutoring.

It was there, at a second-floor open space in the Boston Public Library's main branch, that Garcia had gathered the advanced placement biology students to prepare for an exam. He was in the midst of going over the concept of chi-square analysis, he said, when he was jumped from behind by an apparently deranged homeless man who, according to a fellow street person, is known in the city's shelters for launching unprovoked attacks.

Garcia described the weapon that cut his right ear as an unusual one, except at a library: a book.

Blood rushing from his lobe, Garcia was later patched up at a local hospital after he and library security collared the assailant, according to the teacher and a Boston police report.

Garcia said he is upset that his students had to witness that kind of bushwhacking within such hallowed halls."This happened in full view of everybody," he said. "My kids didn't deserve to see that."

The midday ambush not only gouged Garcia's ear. It also tore open the latest chapter in an everlong debate that centers around the mighty ideals of personal safety and civil rights.

Some critics say that the BPL's noble embrace of everyone, as inscribed in the words above its entranceway, "FREE TO ALL," has led to a free-for-all at the Copley Library. The BPL's beloved main branch, they say, has become a home away from home for homeless folks, street people, transients, and unstable individuals.

Yet homeless advocates and library staff say it is dangerous to judge a book by its cover. "Public is pretty much in the middle of our name - we're the Boston Public Library," said Mary Bender, the BPL's acting communications manager. "As they walk in the door, we should make a decision about whether they are welcome or not at the Boston Public Library based on sight? That's a horrible idea to me."

Public safety vs. public access is a divide that has long bedeviled public libraries. The mayor of New Bedford earlier this year offered safety proposals following the alleged rape of a 6-year-old boy at the city's main branch library by a convicted sex offender. One notion was that all would have to have a proper ID to enter the building. Some critics say that condition unfairly targets homeless people, many of whom don't have up-to-date IDs and prefer to be unknown.

At the BPL, Bender said last month's outburst against the teacher was an anomaly.

Boston Police Department records show that the location of the central branch - which has an annual gate tally of 1.3 million - is a hectic one: From January 2005 through this May 28, police assistance has been sought inside and just outside the Copley library about 13 times a month. The reasons for summoning police range from purse-snatching to assault and battery. The numbers denote raw calls, not necessarily confirmed offenses.

"It's a really unfortunate incident that happened here," Bender said, alluding to the May 10 broadside. "We strive every day to keep the thousands of people who come through our doors safe."

Police have not revealed the name of the alleged perpetrator in Garcia's case because the courts are still sifting through the facts and no charges have yet been filed. Still, the man is often well dressed and carrying a briefcase, according to the acquaintance, a homeless man named Ken Thomas. Yet the mere appearance at the library of those who may not look like they live in Back Bay brownstones seems to rub some the wrong way.

Under the heading, "The homeless problem at the Boston Public Library," here's what "web entrepreneur" Colin Nederkoorn wrote on his "Top Startup" blog last year after a visit to the BPL:

"One guy looked dirtier than the other so I sat next to the least dirty looking homeless man. I started to read, but couldn't ignore the foul stench surrounding me . . . What bothers me the most was not the smell, nor was it the fact that homeless people are in the library. It's the fact that they are sleeping!?!? If you're homeless and in a library . . . READ A BOOK! You've obviously got nothing better to do with your time, so why not get a little education? . . . Instead, they are busy wasting taxpayer dollars sleeping."

Nederkoorn could not be reached by phone or e-mail, as he was biking across the United States, according to his blog.

Jim Stewart, a longtime advocate for the homeless, said such rants make insidious assumptions. "Nobody knows someone's economic or housing status by someone's personal hygiene," said Stewart, director of the First Church Shelter in Cambridge. "If you said the same thing about black people or gay people based on hygiene or appearance, you'd be a bigot and nobody would have any time for you."

With many area homeless shelters shut during the warm-weather daytime hours, and, advocates say, a dwindling number of spaces around the city that are accomodating to street people, a regular cadre of homeless folks still find the library a refuge from things like the harsh climate - or their own personal turbulence.

In his experience, Stewart said, street people are more often victims of crime than perpetrators. "Homeless people have an investment in being anonymous," he said. "They're not trying to draw attention to themselves."

Every day at the BPL, as the library security guards make their rounds, they have to balance the twin doctrines of civility and civil liberties, Bender said. They are guided by the BPL's "Appropriate Library Use Policy," a set of rules not unlike those used in other libraries across the country.

Beyond barring obvious transgressions such as sexual acts, drinking, and fighting, the dictums also prohibit these: "using restrooms for bathing or shampooing, doing laundry, or changing clothes," "lying down or sleeping . . . " and "entering the Library barefooted, without a shirt, with offensive body odor or personal hygiene . . ."

On a recent weekday, a security guard was seen nudging awake a young student snoozing in a chair - the usual course of action for dozing denizens, Bender said. For those complaining about malodorous neighbors, the norm is for guards to politely suggest the offended seek other seating, Bender said. For the alleged homeless assailant, Bender said he faces possible criminal charges plus banishment from the library for a year.

"We don't judge anybody by their address," said Bender. "We deal with people based on how they behave in our institution."

Sergio Costa, a regular Copley user, said he was not surprised that someone was physically menaced at the BPL.

He was so dispirited by a 2006 encounter with two guys at Copley - including one who was flagrantly unfragrant and muttering angrily - that he fired off a letter to his hometown paper in New Bedford. It began: "Libraries are not homeless shelters."

In a phone interview, Costa said he laments that a building with such lofty purpose - which also bears the imprint on its edifice "DEDICATED TO THE ADVANCEMENT OF LEARNING" - has appeared to him at times like a house of hangers-on. He is not sure what to do about it.

"I have a love for libraries," said Costa, a 34-year-old PhD who works for a Boston college-textbook publisher. "I just have a beef with it turning into a magnet for people who should be elsewhere."

Ken Thomas would beg to differ. Wearing a snowboarding coat and ski cap despite the scorching heat, he, too, proclaimed his fondness for libraries.

He comes to the Copley branch nearly every day, he said, and doesn't bother anybody - but himself.

"I know I'm a bit neurotic," said Thomas, 44. He spends hours on end there using literature to unravel his troubles. "It's a challenge to see if I can solve my own problems," he said.

A stack of titles was piled before him on a recent afternoon. "I'm reading a lot of Freud and Jung," said Thomas.

He attended college for 2 1/2 years, he said, but dropped out after depression enveloped him. He's been homeless since 1999, he said, after he injured his spine and lost his job as a laborer.

These days, he shuttles between shelter beds, street berths, and his mound of books.

"As long as it says 'public library,' " Thomas said, before reshelving every one of his volumes, "I'm coming here whenever I feel like it."

Book 'em!

In addition to last month's physical assault there, Boston police have been called for help inside and just outside the main branch of the Boston Public Library for a variety of reasons over the last few years. They include:



Threats to do bodily harm

Assault and battery

Found property

Lost property

Family trouble

SOURCE: Boston Police Department. Incidents represent raw calls, not confirmed offenses, from Jan. 2005 through this May 28.

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