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Mayor to Homeless: "Out!" of City Libraries

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"You can't do that," says Kent Willis, executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. Any outright attempt to bar the homeless would violate the 14th Amendment, Willis says, which prohibits states from denying any person equal protection of the laws.

"Of course, the mayor lacks subtlety, as he often does," Willis says. It might be possible, but difficult, he says, to write policies that serve to exclude the homeless without overtly targeting them.

The mayor hasn't shared his plan with Harriet Henderson, director of Richmond public library, who thinks his edict is unnecessary.

Many homeless people use the libraries regularly, Henderson says. "I don't think I'd characterize it as a problem," she says.

The main branch on West Franklin Street sees the most homeless clients. "They'll use the computer, just like everybody else. They'll use the magazines and newspapers like everybody else," Henderson says.

Some settle in for the day, which is fine with library staff as long as they don't break the rules: no sleeping, no bringing in multiple bags, no noise, no disrupting other patrons. "If someone is harassing the staff or the general public, you're out right now," Henderson says.

Problems do arise when the homeless camp out at computer stations or occupy too many seats, making fewer accessible for other patrons. "Space is limited," Henderson says.

This is Wilder's concern. He worries that kids are having difficulty getting into the libraries to study. But the solution is not to kick all the homeless out, Henderson says. She has been meeting with social service organizations to figure out what could be done.

The mayor's less patient. "Out!" he says. "I'll take the flak."

One older man who was eating a sandwich Thursday on the steps of the library's main branch says he's a fan of Wilder's. He used to live only a few blocks from Wilder's old law office in Church Hill. But he disapproves of the mayor's homeless directive. "Don't sound right," he says.

The homeless, he says, have to come downtown to get services and meals served by churches. If the library's shut to them, he says, "Where's people going? Where are they going during the day?" S

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