With Crime There Rising, Denver’s Central Library Seeks Ways To Serve Patrons Safely

Photo: Denver Central Library 3 | Using computer
Linda Campbelo of Denver uses a computer at the Denver Central Library to play a game on Thursday, June 25, 2017. Others nearby were watching movies, reading emails and browsing the web.

The Denver Public Library says its Central branch location has seen an "unprecedented rise" in crime, including drug use, violence and sanitation issues. In response, officials are taking steps to improve security.

As CPR News has previously reported, the Central Library has responded to the overdose death of a homeless man who was found in the bathroom, and how the branch is playing the unofficial role of a homeless shelter.

The library’s immediate plans now include boosting the presence of Denver Police with regular patrols inside and outside of the building, and hiring four additional security guards for a total of 25 for the Central location.

If funds can be found, the library hopes to add more than 70 security cameras to the building. Library officials have also asked that $50 million of the $900 million general obligation bond on the November 2017 ballot go toward structural changes to the Central Library branch. The goal of the changes are to increase security, like lowering shelves for a better view between the stacks. The library also wants to fence off the north lawn facing Civic Center Park, to make it a kids-only zone.

"A lot of the root causes of the behaviors that are finding their way through our doors are happening throughout Denver, and that's daunting,” said Chris Henning, communications manager for the Denver Public Library. “We're trying to do what we can do specifically for our facilities to make sure they're safe. And at the same time, help the city address these bigger problems."

Photo: Denver Central Library 4 | Outside library
Lorry White, who's currently homeless, walks away from the Denver Central Library on Thursday, May 25, 2017. White says she hangs out near the library to use the free wi-fi.

The library, in an official statement, said in part, "Denver — along with the rest of the country — is in the middle of a narcotic and opioid epidemic. Denver currently ranks third in the nation for drug abuse and the associated crime is infiltrating the city at an alarming rate. Additionally, our above-average population growth is fueling problems for public spaces like the library, parks and other downtown locations."

Jenna McKnight, a PhD student who lives in Denver, said she’s stopped using the Denver Central Library because it feels unsafe. She cites the multiple heroin overdoses at the library, and how the library now carries Narcan — a medication use to reverse opioid overdoses.

“I understand that the library is in a very difficult situation,” McKnight says. “And I appreciate that they are trying to help our homeless population. The city needs to find other solutions to this significant humanitarian problem. A public library should be a place that feels safe and welcoming for every member of the community.”

We reached out to people who commented both in support of and against the library’s growing role as a homeless shelter, on both the CPR News and NPR News Facebook pages.

The second comment down is from Brooke McCullough, a student and mom who lives in the Lowry neighborhood.

“Usually when I go to the library, I let my daughter run around a little bit at least,” McCullough said. “I’'m not like hawk-eyed, keep her right in my line of sight, because I want her to be able to get some independence and be in a place where she can be around the corner for me, or she doesn't have to be right by me."

She and her daughter visited the Central library after a trip to the Denver Art Museum. It was their first time there.

“I kind of looked up at one point and realized wow, there's a lot of homeless people in here,” McCullough said. “There's a lot of men who you don't know, you don't know what kind of issues they have. You don't know if they have mental health issues, you don't know if they're going to take your daughter and run with her. So I felt very unsafe. I wanted my daughter in my line of sight at all times. So it was a very different experience."

McCullough left after a homeless man wouldn't take his eyes off her daughter.

"She was a little bit away from me, and he was just watching her,” McCullough said. “And that was kind of the moment for me where I felt like, 'and we're done.' "

McCollough found the building to be beautiful, and she was impressed by the collection. But she won’t be back.

"Me walking into the bathroom with my child and possibly witnessing like a meth deal or a heroine deal going down? Like, no thanks. We'll just use a different library."

The numerous homeless people seemed to be a sign the city needs to improve is resources for the homeless community, McCollough said. She doesn't feel a library should be taking on the shelter role.

Photo: Denver Central Library 1 | Perusing audio books
Brett Normandin of Denver peruses the audio book section of the Denver Central Library on Thursday, May 25, 2017.

In an interview with 9News, Denver Mayor Michael Hancock said those struggling with addiction go to the library because of its resources. There are two full-time social workers on staff, to help with the hundreds of homeless who use the facility each day.

When told some parents avoid taking their children to the Central library, Hancock said he doesn't blame them.

“You know, if my children were small and still going in and out of that library, I wouldn’t want to take them down their either. I certainly get it. But our job is to fix it,” Hancock said.

In an interview with CPR’s Colorado Matters, Hancock said the library is doing “a phenomenal job trying to respond to every demographic that walks through the door.” And he said his response to 9News was honest and candid.

"You know what? If I was a parent of small children, I would probably be fearful as well," Hancock said.

Denver Public Library's Chris Henning disagrees.

“We think the central library is still definitely a safe place for families to come, and especially for children.” Henning said. “Our children's library is a very well protected space within the building.”

And Katie Holtz-Russell, who lives in Congress Park, said she's been taking her 5-year-old daughter to the Central library since she was born, even though they live close to two other branch locations.

"I have never once felt unsafe in the library,” Holtz-Russell said. “I've never felt that my daughter was unsafe. But I think it has created opportunities for [me and my daughter] to have real honest conversations about the Denver landscape, and just what's happening in our city that are really important for me for her to understand."

Holtz-Russell and her husband got their library cards at the Central location in the early 2000’s, and have been loyal ever since. She’s disappointed in the mayor’s comments.

"I would look toward our mayor to be leading an effort to support our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness,” Holtz-Russell says. “And I think that was a missed opportunity for him to highlight the efforts that the library is undertaking to create a safe place, and encourage our Denver residents to not shy away from attending."