Op. Ed. – San Jose Public Library’s No Bedding Policy Is Discriminatory and Dangerous
In February of this year, I lost my home in Los Angeles. With a death rate of 1 in 50 for Los Angeles homeless people, leading to close to one-thousand dead homeless people found each year on the streets of LA, I’d hoped to escape the alleged City of Angels and head north. Through a convoluted series of events, I landed in South Bay. As a former resident of both Mountain View and Sunnyvale, Silicon Valley had been my home for many years, prior to my move to Los Angeles.
At least in San Jose, I felt at home, whatever that can mean to someone with no place to live. I’d been homeless in San Jose, before, over seven years ago. Back then, it was much easier to survive.
There’d been a moment, in 2013, when my film and writing career had taken off. Prior to that success, I could be found wandering the streets of downtown, haunting various Starbuck’s locations with a single mission; keeping my batteries charged.
Both my cell phone and laptop were the devices that had eventually saved my life. In April of 2013, it was an /R/Assistance request, posted on Reddit, that had attracted the attention of the Google programmer that extracted me from the street. After that, I’d gone from disabled, poor, and destitute, to enjoying a much-earned life of luxury and success, a rapid transition that took me from a “drain on society” to “It’s an honor to meet you” in less than a few weeks.
In 2013, companies like Starbuck’s, McDonald’s, and Denny’s had become default day shelters for the homeless. A homeless person could make a small purchase, get out of the elements, and charge their batteries. Returning to San Jose, circa 2020, was an entirely different affair. I quickly discovered that over the last decade, most of these establishments had removed the power outlets from their locations, leaving me scrambling to find a way to keep my devices active.
For a homeless person, a cell phone and laptop can be powerful tools, especially in a city like San Jose, which is already struggling to take care of it’s ballooning homeless population. I’d attempted to go to local shelters, only to be told there was a ninety-day waiting period for entrance. Even if I did my time, I was told it would be another six months before I could be provided with permanent housing. Facing a nine-month sentence to homelessness, I’d realized that I was going to have to leave San Jose. That night, I rode around on the VTA local trains, piggybacking wifi, searching for a reasonable out, until my batteries were dead.
The next morning, I was awoken by police, outside of Diridon Station and told I had to move on. At night, the bus shelters on the property turn into high-end condos for the homeless, a roof over our heads. I’d managed to scrape together a few dollars so I could afford a beer at the bar across the street. It turned out, they had power plugs. Posing as a traveler who had just got off the MegaBus from LA, I’d found yet another creative way to keep my devices fueled.
Faced with a lack of available social services, a homeless person is required to be resourceful. Sites like Craigslist, GoFundMe, Reddit, and even Facebook, can present a person who is living on the street with ways to save themselves from rock bottom. In particular, Facebook Messenger can provide a homeless person with ways to communicate with friends or family, if those avenues are available. As the day trudged on, my batteries started dying, again.
I realized that there was no readily available and ongoing solution for keeping my only lifeline alive. I then went to the last resort, the San Jose Public Library. Surely, of all places, the library could not only keep me out of the elements but each table is adorned with a power outlet. Not only could I use my time at the library to try to bail myself out of the terrible situation I was in, I could keep my batteries charged.
With my backpack strapped to my back, sleeping bag and pillow attached, I walked into the library downtown, happy because I’d found a solution. Only moments after walking into the building, I was accosted by a San Jose Police Officer who told me I was not allowed to bring bedding into the library. I questioned the officer, “What would you have me do with my stuff?” He had no answer but said, “It’s library policy.” Dropping my bedding outside, prior to entering, assured that it would have been stolen.
With nowhere to charge my batteries, I found myself sitting downtown thinking, “I am going to die here.” Not one to accept such an absurd situation, I used the last of my battery power to write a message to San Jose Public Library administration, expressing the dangers of not allowing bedding in the library. I pointed out that I’d never encountered a library system with such a blatantly discriminatory policy and how that policy could negatively affect the homeless population.
Just as I was sending the message, the owner for a well-established dive bar, where I had been a long-standing customer, came outside and started screaming at me, yelling that I wasn’t allowed to stand on the public sidewalk in front of his business or he’d call the police. I reminded him that he’d seemed to have no issue with me standing there in the years prior when I’d been leaving hundred dollar tips for his bartenders, but it didn’t matter. By this time, I’d been told by at least a half a dozen businesses that I would be tossed in jail for existing on a public sidewalk.
In Los Angeles, Bakersfield, and other cities on my way north, I’d at least had the public library as a backup plan. In San Jose, even that option had been removed. I’d expressed to the administrators that solutions were needed to make sure that all citizens, regardless of housing status, have access to the public library. Generally, when I write such messages to pretty much anyone, they write back. In the case of the San Jose Public Library, I got nothing.
Months later, it’s still staggering that library administrators showed no regard for the potential socioeconomic discrimination issues presented by the no bedding policy. Most libraries are very sensitive to these issues and do everything they can to make sure everyone, no matter what their life situation is, can enter. My intent for writing a message was the hope of finding a way that homeless people were not forced to abandon their bedding, just to enter the library.
The loss of bedding can incite a wave of consequences, including the systematic weakening of the immune system when a person is unable to lie down and go to sleep, for days on end. When it gets cold at night, the only solution to staying warm, without a blanket and pillow, is to walk around. One can only walk so far before exhaustion sets in. When a dead homeless person is found, I often wonder how many nights they’d wandered the streets, without bedding, before succumbing to the elements.
In cities like Eugene, Oregon, and San Diego, storage solutions for homeless people’s belongings have eased the burden that backpacks and bedding allegedly place on businesses. Eugene’s solution was to buy a moving Pod, install shelving, set it up in a parking lot downtown, and allow the homeless, and anyone else, to visit the downtown, unencumbered. San Diego organizations offer full storage lockers. Yet, even in these cities, bedding is not restricted from the library.
With a COVID-19 threatening to add 30,000 more people to California’s homeless population, it’s of the utmost importance that we provide the homeless population every opportunity possible to get off the street and that we present as few barriers to self-sustainability as humanly possible.
In my opinion, the San Jose public library needs to suspend the no bedding policy until an alternative solution can be found for the storage of bedding. I also believe that an industrious local citizen, with a mind for helping the homeless, could potentially form a non-profit .org that fills the need for this potentially life-saving storage service. Charging ports would be nice, too.
Two days after I was asked to leave the library, a manager at a downtown Starbuck’s was nice enough to allow me to charge my batteries. As a result, barring any other option, it was my own son, in Ohio, who bought me a Greyhound ticket and got me off the street, only moments into the city-wide lockdown. My devices had saved me.
Since then, a relative level of balance has been restored to my life. I am slowly but surely rebuilding my life and career. I am no longer homeless. In spite of this, I still lie awake at night remembering the moments where I’d lost it all and ended up a lower form of life who couldn’t be allowed to stand on a city sidewalk or be trusted to bring a sleeping bag and a pillow into a public library.