Reading is a comforting refuge when the streets are cold and shelters are closed
By VANESSA HO, P-I REPORTER
As the sky darkened and the rain blew sideways, Tiberious Shapiro tucked into the Central Library, his favorite place to pass the hours before the homeless shelters opened. He picked up a paperback and escaped into a Harlequin romance.
Around him were dozens of hard-edged, solitary men. There was bushy-bearded Kevin, who slept in a park; the mohawked regular who panhandled for beer money; a young man who slapped his head with a magazine; an old man who strode in with a garbage bag rustling around his shirt.
For them, Seattle's renowned downtown library is more than architectural dazzle and literary splendor. It is a harbor from autumn and winter and an oasis from an increasingly wealthy and unwelcoming downtown.
"I'll sit here and let the day's stress come down," said Shapiro, who is 38, thin, toothless and scraped up.
Zoom Andy Rogers / P-I
Tiberious Shapiro takes a look at Reader's Digest in the "Living Room" area of the Seattle Central Library recently. Shapiro says the downtown library is his favorite place to pass the time before homeless shelters open.
Every year, as the weather turns nastier, more people seek refuge inside the celebrated, $165 million, glass-and-metal tourist attraction.
In the old library, patrons who were homeless, addicted and mentally ill had generated loud complaints. There were such common-sense rules as no sleeping, drinking alcohol or bathing in the sinks, but they were inconsistently enforced. Staffers and patrons complained of assaults and drug deals, and of smelly men hogging up chairs to doze.
When the new Central Library opened two years ago, many people wondered if it would simply become a more expensive homeless hangout.
But today, the library is doing more to accommodate both rich and poor. There are more programs for a wider audience, from noontime lectures to children's events to writing workshops for homeless people.
"I feel really proud of our staff and our commitment to making sure the building is user-friendly, safe and diverse," city librarian Deborah Jacobs said.
The building itself is more spacious, with more individual breathing space and fewer creepy isolated areas. And tourists still come daily, to gawk at the soaring ceilings.
"I think this is one of the places in Seattle where people can come and everybody is the same," said security officer Christopher Hogan, as he recently made his rounds through the library's 10 public floors.
The calmer atmosphere is mostly because of Hogan and his team of 10 officers, who roam the book spirals, stairwells and bathrooms with clockwork efficiency.
Hogan and Vanderhoef
Zoom Andy Rogers / P-I
Security officer Christopher Hogan chats with Kevin Vanderhoef, who had nodded off at the library after spending a night on the street. Vanderhoef was reminded of the rules, which includes no sleeping. Vanderhoef says he visits the library frequently, sometimes every day
On a recent day, Hogan gently rousted slumbering men to "get some fresh air." He asked a man about to snack on a cookie to put it away. He told a patron that his bursting, gargantuan bag did not appear regulation-size.
Anyone who reeks gets a polite request to leave and a card telling him or her where to get a free shower.
"That's probably the one that's the most difficult to enforce, because it's really personal," Hogan said.
Since the library opened, officers have barred more than 800 rule breakers, mostly for sleeping or being disruptive. The exclusions last for a few days to one year.
Shapiro, who often plays pinochle online, said he had a spell of nodding off at the library, which got him banned. He had torn his shoulder at a job heaving 50-pound sacks of rice, was on painkillers and couldn't stay awake. But the officers, he said, had been nice about it.
"They go out of their way to give you every possible chance they can."
Hogan said he tries to treat everyone respectfully, no matter what they wear or how badly they smell.
"It goes back to how my mother raised me," he said.
During his rounds, he shook hands with Luther, who sported thick, broken eyeglasses. He awakened Kevin and learned he was tired from sleeping poorly on a park bench the night before.
He checked on a regular in matted dreadlocks, who often percolated with wild thoughts and spent hours filling sheets of paper with tiny numbers.
"Is the satellite working?" Hogan asked without a smirk. Usually friendly, the man didn't answer. Hogan grew concerned.
He considered it his job to know if someone was off his meds, off the wagon or off from a bad night. Then the man muttered something about a business logo in the newspaper being his own logo. Hogan knew he was all right.
"I was looking for him to say something outrageous, and he did," he said. Then Hogan turned to him and spoke like a friend.
"I'll catch up with you in a little bit."