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New library policy and homelessness in New Brunswick

Upon entering Alexander Library on Monday, Nov. 10, I was taken aback by a sign proclaiming Rutgers ID cards would be required by patrons in order to remain in the library after 10 p.m., beginning on Sunday Nov. 16. Until that moment, I had celebrated Alexander and other libraries as the last places in New Brunswick in which people could read or gather without having to buy anything — the last truly public places. Requiring someone to buy something before spending time in a place, like a coffee shop, makes it inherently exclusive and creates a barrier for the most disenfranchised. While this might be part of the purpose of various businesses designed to cater to specific economic classes, doing so, in this case, would contradict the stated purpose of a library. It is clear to me that this policy has come in the wake of serious budget cuts to the libraries and is partly motivated by the limited resources now allotted by the higher administration.

The people I thought of first upon reading the sign were some of the homeless folks in New Brunswick. Many of them come to Alexander Library to access the Internet and read, as well as to take shelter from the weather and take naps. That’s no different from how students use the library. The editorial titled, “Out of sight does not mean out of mind,” claims the homeless folks who use libraries are there “seeking shelter,” which is gravely reductionist and obscures the way homeless patrons participate in the main purposes of the library. This assumption robs the homeless of their personhood as it denies the possibility of their interests in learning.

It was irresponsible for the authors of the editorial to state there are two shelters within walking distance of New Brunswick, when these shelters have never had sufficient resources to provide shelter for the whole homeless population. There are always people on a waiting list at the only men’s homeless shelter in New Brunswick, a Catholic shelter called Ozanam Inn, said staff supervisor Cynthia Bagner in a phone interview. This is also the case at Naomi’s Way, the New Brunswick shelter for single women who “must be homeless and accompanied by at least one child,” according to their website. None of the unhoused people I have met have been able to take refuge at these places because of the high demand for space. In the winter, an Interfaith Rotating Shelter will provide shelter overnight in houses of worship in New Brunswick, but it can only house up to fifteen people per night, and they need more volunteers. The services provided by these shelters are admirable and necessary, but they certainly cannot serve everyone who needs them and they are not the same services provided by the library. There is a reason that homeless patrons of the library do not just “seek shelter” in student centers but seek out the specific culture and resources of the library.

The reactions of some Rutgers students to unhoused folk are alarmingly devoid of compassion, betraying signs of irrational fear and disgust. Like the aforementioned editorial says, viewing homeless or needy folks in the library as a “serious safety or security threat” is “a racist, classist attitude” and one that has no foundation in fact. Some students instinctually want to displace the unhoused folks they encounter on the Rutgers campus to “somewhere else,” rather than being understanding of their situation. Students should know there is no “somewhere else” for the homeless in New Brunswick. Once the precedent is set that the homeless should be taken “out of sight” for the students at the library, these unfortunate attitudes of students toward others will only grow and harden. As the student population grows, in the future, further restrictions on hours will certainly be set — unless, perhaps, the students make their wishes about the library known now.

One of the best parts of Rutgers is that it is engaged with New Brunswick in various ways, and students can meet and develop relationships with people outside the “university bubble.” This matter might seem like one of principle to me and nearly 200 other students who have signed a petition against this policy since Monday, but it is a tangible change in the nature of our University libraries and the public culture they are cherished for. For some long-term friends of the library, people I would much rather see at the library than on the street, the policy will also mean an extra four hours in the cold every weeknight.

Students who wish to get involved as volunteers for the Interfaith Rotating Shelter can find the “RUSH Rutgers University Supporting the Homeless” page on Facebook. They can also find the group “Food for Thought, New Brunswick,” which organizes a free breakfast for the community every two weeks. The aforementioned petition is currently on change.org, titled “Cancel the Policy Requiring RU IDs after 10 pm in Libraries.”

Shireen Hamza is School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in English with minors in cognitive science and African, Middle Eastern and South Asian languages and literature. 

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