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Checking Out the Issue of Homelessness at the Sioux City Library

With homelessness on the rise across the country, public libraries across the country have felt the impact.  Siouxland Public Media’s Sheila Brummer checked out the situation here in Sioux City.

“I love to use the library, I come here fairly often.”

Linda Baker enjoys taking her 20-month-old granddaughter to the library in downtown Sioux City.

“Sally do you like the purple balloon book”?  

They come for books and a little socializing.

“Today we just went to the story time and we checked out something for her.”

They’re not the only ones who spend time at the library.

“I’m 54-years old, I was born raised her in Sioux City.  I have been homeless now for two years now, and that’s about it.”

That’s Ron, who doesn’t want to share his last name.

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Ron at Day Shelter in Sioux City

REPORTER: “What circumstance led you to being homeless”?  

“Drugs, drugs and alcohol. I quit drinking five-years ago but I’m trying to get off drugs and everything.  It just don’t work.  I go through treatment doesn’t work.  But, I go back to the same old habits.”  

Ron says he still uses Marijuana and meth.  And, occasionally hangs out at the library.

“Just read books, chit chat with people see who comes and goes.  Walk around downtown. " 

Helen Rigdon is the Director of the Sioux City Public Library.

“I know the homeless situation has been a hot topic here in Sioux City.”

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Sioux City Public Library Director Helen Rigdon

Rigdon says on an average day ten to 20 people who appear to be homeless use her facility.

More during extremely cold or hot weather.

“We don’t want the library to appear to be a like hotel or flop house.  So, we do ask that people not to sleep.  And, that is an issue because the homeless don’t sleep well in the shelters and things.”

Rigdon says her staff respects the privacy of patrons but does also enforce rules on hygiene and what people can haul into the building.

“Some of them were bringing up to 50 bags, grocery bags.  What they consider to be possessions. Some is trash so we have watch for pests and things like that.”  

The library also turned to the Sioux City Police Department and hired off-duty officers for security.

“The library understand that is a public place and unless someone displays extremely bad behavior the library is reluctant and should be to deny service because sometimes people use their services.  There is delicate balance, you people want to feel safe using the services and it is a safe place.”

That’s Sioux City Police Chief Rex Mueller.  He says the issue of homelessness is multi-faceted, at times a substance abuse issue and mental-health issue.  

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Police Chief Rex Mueller

“Over the years we kind of criminalized homelessness and that is not a solution, because people say ‘I don’t want to see this, this not how a good community looks.  I appreciate that.  There are a lot of concerns that there are many sides to the issue.  I appreciate the appearance and concern of downtown businesses.  But, what we need is creative and more long-term approaches and solutions to the issue.”

“It shouldn’t be treated as a criminal justice system.  People who are homeless are drug-addicted and have mental health issues and are deserve some kind of treatment and not arrest.”

“Jail becomes the default option and that’s just a terrible way to treat somebody with mental illness. I think the numbers for people with mental illness in prison is staggering.  It should tell us something about how we failed with those policies.”

“Getting the hospitals involved, getting the mental health facilities involved, law enforcement, business owners, the city.  This isn’t a problem solved by just one entity.  It takes the dedication of the entire community to work on it.”

One of the groups helping the homeless, the Warming Shelter.  

“Our mission in a whole is to make sure no one freezes to death.”  

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Warming Shelter Manager Lindsay Landrum

Lindsay Landrum is the manager of the shelter that relies solely on local donations.  

“I think any city, in general, has an issue with homelessness.  We have a huge housing issue here.  There’s no affordable housing or enough here.  So, I think that’s the issue.”

“To see what they go through every single day, the hardships they go through every single day and then you think about yourself and you say ‘man, I messed up my eggs this morning’, and that was difficult for me and they are literally living on the street.”  

“So, you have to take a step back and just provide way more empathy to them and let them know that you are here to help them, to be an ear for them and a voice for them also.”

“There’s a huge misunderstanding with homelessness.  They are not bad people they had a bad situation happen, and they can’t get back on their feet.”

Ron uses the Warming Shelter.  We met him at their day shelter at the old St. Boniface School on West 7thStreet.

“I was incarcerated.” “Went to prison and everything. In and out of prison.  Living that lifestyle, criminal activity get in trouble and everything.  Bad habits.”

Ron says he spent time in and out of prison since 1983 for burglary and sexual assault.  He blames alcohol for leading him into a life of crime.

REPORTER “What kind of future do you hope you have?”  

"That right there is a tough question to answer.  I have no clue.  I have no clue where I would want to go.  I would like to think it would go the right away and everything goes the right way.  I always slip I put myself in harm’s way. Doing things I ain’t suppose to do.  One thing leads to another and I end up back here.”

For now, Ron roams the streets, sleeps at shelters or a friend’s couch and occasionally ends up at the library.

“We hang out during the day.”  “You get tired, you fall asleep and they kick you out.”

“Do you want to put on your jacket?”

Linda Baker, who plans to return to the library with her granddaughter very soon doesn’t mind sharing the space with those who don’t have a place to call their own.

REPORTER:  “Do you feel safe?”  

“I do.”

Sheila Brummer returns to her radio roots as a Reporter/Special Projects Producer for Siouxland Public Media KWIT-KOJI.