MISSOULA — In Missoula, some residents live in expensive apartments or houses while others sleep in tents along the river. But at the Missoula Public Library, housed and unhoused Missoulians co-exist under the same roof.
Typically, the library is a place of peace and quiet, a place to check out a book or maybe a film. But at other times, Missoula’s library and its staff and visitors see firsthand some of the more challenging aspects of being homeless in the city. Library staff report that drug use is prevalent in the bathrooms.
But even more common are mental illness-fueled outbursts, they say. In turn, the staff is finding new ways to make the library a place of safety and support for unhoused Missoulians.
But Missoula doesn’t have just any library. Constructed at a cost of $38 million, the sleek, modern building stands out among the nation’s libraries. The Missoula Public Library opened in the summer of 2021, offering innovative educational resources and upscale communal spaces.
In 2022, it gained prominence after winning a “Library of the Year” award from the International Federation of Library Associations, the first time the honor has been bestowed in North America.
Alongside the deluxe addition to Missoula’s downtown, the city has also struggled to find solutions for its homeless population. Over the summer, Missoula’s mayor declared a state of emergency to help reopen the city’s Johnson Street Shelter.
With housed and unhoused people sharing the library, the hardships faced by some can be uncomfortable for others, said Slaven Lee, the library’s executive director.
“This to me feels like the most diverse gathering of people in Missoula County that I ever see,” Lee said.
Lee previously worked at libraries in Seattle, Washington, and Austin, Texas, both cities with large populations of homeless people. She described homelessness as a “painful national problem” to which Missoula is not immune.
“What we’re seeing in our library is definitely what’s happening in other public libraries all over the country,” Lee said.
With few options, unhoused people tend to congregate in the new library, using the internet, reading books, playing video games available to the public, and staying out of the rain and cold.
“There’s not many places that people can go these days where they don’t have to pay an entry fee or buy a cup of coffee,” said Amanda Allpress, the library’s assistant director and head of community engagement. “Anyone can just come in and be, without having to have a reason. It’s for everybody to use.”
Initially, the library hired a security company to oversee the premises. But the staff noticed that some security officers appeared to be searching for problems among the homeless population. A better way to respond to homeless patrons, the staff concluded, would be to employ “safety specialists.”
Allpress said that, in many places, unhoused people are accustomed to being unwelcomed and turned away. The goal of public libraries should be to bring people in, Allpress said, so she developed the new safety specialist position as a compassion-centered job with more resemblance to a social worker than a security officer.
“They have time in their day to be able to stop and talk to people, get to know people, see what their situations are, just gain that level of trust,” Allpress said.
By building trust, the library’s safety specialists can also connect unhoused library visitors to local community centers. Partnership Health Center and Open Aid Alliance offer medical resources at the library, for instance, while the YWCA provides help to patrons coping with domestic violence. The local homeless outreach team, through Missoula’s Poverello Center, is at the library regularly, giving further support to unhoused patrons by offering food and clothing.
Helping parts of the community connect to one another is part of the library’s purpose, Lee said.
“The mission is to spark curiosity, make connections and thrive together,” she said. “And I think that this space does that for all different kinds of people.”
For Brett Bloom, the library’s lead safety specialist, the biggest concern about the unhoused community at the library is drug use. Bloom often engages with unhoused patrons in friendly banter, but his role is also to prevent worst-case scenarios. He and the two other safety specialists employed by the library carry the overdose-treatment nasal spray Narcan and conduct regular bathroom checks to make sure no one is using on the premises. Bloom has found discarded drug baggies and used syringes in the bathroom trash.
“I thought I was gonna be here shushing kids,” Bloom said. “That is not the job.”
Although drugs are present, some homeless people use the library’s resources in their search for stability.
“They can do so much here,” Bloom said. “They can use a laptop. Our reference librarians can help them build resumes. It’s just a desire. A lot of them just hang out on the ground floor just to feel safe for the day. The more driven head up to the third floor and start using those resources to try to get back into housing.”
Other unhoused patrons use the library as a place to find community, with some working on sobriety.
“They act like a walking AA group,” Bloom said. “I’ve seen that happen in five or six different groups. They come in and they help each other out. They keep each other on track to get housing sorted out, deal with the court stuff, keep each other out of trouble. I’ve seen it go the other way, but this is typically how it goes.”
For many unhoused people, the library is also a place to build friendships. Jesse Llewlyn and Adrian Zarate-Romero are two unhoused friends who met there. Llewlyn tends to couch surf, while Zarate-Romero describes himself as “nomadic.” Both can be found at the library almost every day, often spending time together and using the internet alongside other homeless friends.
“We’re all like family here, basically,” Zarate-Romero said, referring to the community of friends he has made at the library, plenty of whom call each other “sis” or “bro.” They often bring each other food and share emotional support.
At other times, the library’s serene, friendly atmosphere is disrupted by outbursts from people struggling with mental illness, drawing attention from patrons.
Llewlyn and Zarate-Romero shared one incident they observed when an unhoused man became frustrated and threw a chair. A safety specialist quickly calmed him down and asked him to leave. According to Llewlyn and Zarate-Romero, shortly after, a library patron, apparently upset that the police weren’t called, yelled at the safety specialist, “If I was your boss I’d fire [you] on the spot.”
Police typically don’t get called, Bloom said, because the library’s safety specialists de-escalate uncomfortable situations before law enforcement becomes necessary.
Bloom said he hears complaints about homeless people in the library from other patrons at least once a week. The complainants, he said, view the homeless as “an eyesore” in the otherwise fancy building.
“They want me to kick them all out of here, not understanding that it’s a public space,” Bloom said. “‘You need to run these guys off.’ It’s like, to where? Where are they gonna go, especially when it’s negative 30?”
In the library’s approach, people who unreasonably disrupt the library’s peace may be asked to leave the building for the rest of the day, or even a week or longer. But the staff tries hard to avoid that outcome, both Bloom and Allpress said. For instance, two unhoused people who attempted to assault library staffers were banned for a year.
If an unhoused patron appears to be experiencing a more intensive mental health episode, the city’s Mobile Support Team — typically consisting of a paramedic, a social worker and a behavioral health manager — may be brought in to intervene as an alternative to police, Bloom said.
Across the roughly 600 incidents reported at the library in the past 18 months, only one homeless person has been arrested, Bloom said. Seeking a warm place to stay the night, the woman demanded that the police be called to arrest her after she harassed several patrons.
Among these incidents, two brief fistfights occurred, Bloom said. But arguments between homeless patrons rarely become violent, he added, and the library remains mostly peaceful and pleasant.
“I know that it can be stressful for library staff and for other patrons,” said Missoulian Tracy Hall, who mostly goes to the library to read and attend Zoom calls. She referred to what she has seen as “times when people are going through stuff or having a breakdown.”
“It’s important that the library is a public space,” she said. “I see a lot of people talking about how Missoula is not as great a community because unhoused people are around. But they don’t have anywhere to go. I feel like it’s often just complaining about them without seeing the reasons they’re struggling, or offering solutions.”
Lee, the library’s executive director, pointed out that while unhoused patrons are often viewed as the ones causing problems, other patrons cause disturbances too. Drug abuse in particular, she said, is a widespread issue displayed by many, not just the unhoused at the library. The expectation that all people behave respectfully and treat the library with care is applied to everyone, not just the unhoused, she said.
Lee said patrons often make assumptions about the unhoused population. Nonetheless, she takes time to understand the criticism from those who worry about things like drug use and outbursts.
“I just try to listen to people, reassure them, let them know some things that we are doing to keep the environment safe,” she said. “Because for people who are feeling unsafe or upset, that’s very real for them.”