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Library security discussion spotlights growing homelessness

Patrons could find their handbags and backpacks searched as they enter the public library. They may already have noticed a greater police presence inside and out. And they may see more security upgrades as the county struggles to respond to what neighbors and library staffers describe as an increase in homeless people inside and suspicious activity outside.

 

After hearing about the problem last week, the Board of Commissioners directed the Library Board of Trustees to look at safety and recommend security options. Commissioners heard from a neighbor who described what appeared to be drug transactions, loud arguments and other threatening behavior in the library parking lot and from a commissioner who said the library staff needs help.
“My concern was observing people sleeping in there,” Commissioner Rebecca McCall said. “With the weather starting to change, that problem is probably going to diminish on its own, for the time being. But just making sure we adhere to the rules of it’s there for use as a library and not for spending the day to get out of the cold. We do have areas where they can go, like the mission and other places. It’s not really in the library staff’s job description to have to deal with taking people out of the bathroom because they’re in there taking drugs and that sort of thing.”
The discussion underscored the limits of how far law officers could go in policing a public place and also highlighted what officials say is a gradually growing problem in the city.
“This is just one component of a much larger issue in our community and that’s homeless population,” Commissioner Bill Lapsley said. “I’ve been getting more and more comments from citizens that we’ve got an issue here. We have more of these folks. The economy is going well, yet we seem to be seeing more homeless folks. It seems to be getting bigger. I don’t think we should lose sight of the bigger picture. I think it’s a much larger issue than just what’s going on at the library.”
Lapsley has encountered the problem first hand as the owner of a building on King Street that’s currently vacant. “On three occasions I’ve had homeless people camping out on my property and it’s a very awkward situation,” he said. “I feel for the condition of the homeless people but I’m concerned about my property.”
City Manager John Connet, who also attended the Board of Commissioners meeting, said the county’s Homeless Coalition is focusing on the problem.
“County staff and city staff have already organized a meeting around this issue,” Connet said. The coalition, made up of county public health and social services officials, law enforcement agencies and nonprofit agencies, is working now to “identify ways to deal with the homeless issue, drug dependency, lack of accordable housing, what type of shelters we have in the area. It’s going to take all of us in the community, not just the local government but a lot of our private citizens, churches and nonprofits.”
The county has a contract with the city of Hendersonville to provide police protection at the library, and Police Chief Herbert Blake said his officers have increased their coverage.
“We looked back at the history of calls in that area, specifically from people at the library concerning issues and criminal activity and we couldn’t find any,” Blake told commissioners. “What we did do is we have increased patrols.”
An officer is on duty inside the library after 3 o’clock. “Those officers have not indicated any criminal activity from the people that may be of concern and the library staff have been very welcoming of these people. We are getting concerns from people from afar and I think a lot of this is perception because I do know the officers are not going to tolerate any criminal activity. We are ready to act if there is something to act on.”
Sheriff Lowell Griffin cautioned commissioners that law officers face a delicate balance between policing criminal activity and being able “to roll on that property and just be able to grab somebody.”
“I have asked our folks to also increase their presence,” he said. “But understand this: The chief is kind of behind the 8-ball on this and his officers are. This is a public domain so somebody has to take a stand and actually say, ‘These are the folks that we have observed that we no longer welcome here.’ If somebody that manages that facility ... will say we’re going to point out those that are not welcome here, then at that point we have the authority to ask them to leave,” Griffin said. “Loitering in itself is not a crime. You have to be asked to leave by whoever is in control of that property before we can take any enforcement action, put hands on, whatever the case may be.”
County Attorney Russ Burrell also addressed the balance between anyone’s right to be peaceably present at the facility and the county’s obligation to keep it safe.
“This is a place where it’s intended to be for most of the day a place where kids are welcome,” he said. “Understand from the library’s perspective, they’re not trying to close off the library to anyone. They’re trying to close off the library to people who don’t follow the rules.”
A bag search that screened for illicit substances, he said, might be a start.
“I don’t think they’re going to rack up a huge number of arrests as a result,” Burrell said. “I think they’re going to rack up people not bringing their drugs to the library, which is the purpose in the first place.”