Yes, Charles Town’s library has become a homeless mecca

CHARLES TOWN – The Charles Town Library has a challenge. The library has become the de facto daytime homeless shelter for the community. This role has been thrust upon the library, not because we choose to become a daytime homeless shelter, but because we are the only institution in the downtown area whose doors are freely open to all who wish to enter.

When the Hospitality Center, housed at the Charles Town Presbyterian Church and run by the Jefferson County Homeless Coalition, closes mid-morning, the guests turn to the library for a place to come in out of the cold and for a moment of respite from life on the streets.

The problems that the library has encountered with homeless people are no different than any public library, especially those in urban areas. It is more unusual to have this problem in a rural community, however. As a library that is freely open to the public, we do not discriminate for any reason.

There are not, and cannot be, criteria for whom to admit to the library. If the smells of cigarettes and alcohol, or attire, for example, are used as criteria, many others would not be allowed to enter. Because the library is the quintessential democratic institution in the United States, libraries do pay a price for holding dear the values of freedom and equality.

The Charles Town Library and those who use its services pay a deep price for upholding these values. Those who use the library, as well as the library staff, are, on occasion, subject to drunken, belligerent and disruptive behavior. On some days, library users and staff alike are often surrounded by the odor of a stale bar room. At times, library users must pass a gauntlet of loiters and smokers on our grounds. Every day we pick up litter — beer cans and food containers. The yard is littered with cigarette butts despite no smoking signs. Needless to say, the staff is stressed.

Noting all of the above, the fact of the matter is that those who are homeless are human beings. Many carry with them very deep wounds. They are hurting. And they are doing the best they can given their situation. Hearsay tells us that many of our library users have gone to other libraries in the area in order to avoid homeless people. We are deeply pained by this, if indeed, it is true.

There is no doubt that the ambience of the library has changed. Aspects of sharing the library space with certain homeless people can be discouraging and unappealing. Yet, they have the same right to be in the library as anyone else. We remain conflicted over the burden that has been placed on the library staff and facility given that there is no other place during the day for homeless people to stay. However, each day, the library staff is given an opportunity to exercise and develop compassion.

At times, it has been a challenge to foster a climate of respect, but each day we attempt to create a space that is welcoming, while continuing to provide library services to all. It has been, and remains, a constant lesson in civic engagement and the basic premise on which this country was founded. The doors of America’s libraries have a tacit inscription, no different from the one found on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore, send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door.” Democracy is not always neat and clean.

West Virginia Reads 150

This year, the state of West Virginia observes its sesquicentennial. The West Virginia Library Commission and the West Virginia Center for the Book have challenged readers in the state to celebrate this event by reading 150 books in 2013. The Charles Town Library is a participant.

For any one person, reading 150 books in a year is a huge challenge, though not an impossibility. Although one person can meet this challenge reading solo, groups are encouraged to compete. Groups, or teams, can have up to 15 members. Teams must have a name and a leader who can keep track of the books read by the team. The challenge is open to any age and any sort of group — book clubs, school classrooms, coworkers, families and so on. If children are too young to read, parents or siblings may read to them. Family groups may use their Summer Reading Program reading towards their 150 book goal.

If you, your group, or your family wishes to participate in West Virginia Reads 150, please sign up at library today. And watch here for further details about participation rewards.

Library Book Club

The Charles Town Library Book Club will read Katherine Howe’s page-turner, “The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane,” for its February meeting.

The story is set in motion when graduate student Connie Godwin is attending to her grandmother’s long-abandoned house in Marblehead, Mass., and discovers a paper scrap with the words “Deliverance Dane.”

The novel uses alternating chapters to switch back and forth from the late 17th century to the present. A Booklist reviewer called the novel “spellbinding, vividly detailed, witty and astutely plotted … laced with romance and sly digs at society’s persistent underestimation of women.”

The novel will surely be a compelling read and should offer up a tantalizing discussion about history, woman and hysteria when the Charles Town Library Book Club meets from 3:30 to 5 p.m. Tuesday. The group is open to all.


– Librarian Marcella Genz writes regularly about offerings at Charles Town Library. Send feedback about this column to her at or call the library at 304-725-2208. The library, at 200 E. Washington St. in Charles Town, is open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday, Wednesday and Friday; 1 to 7 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday; and 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays.

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