Ottawa

Library's new door policy leaving homeless out in the cold, councillor says

Coun. Catherine McKenney is calling on the Ottawa Public Library to reverse a decision to keep the doors of the main branch locked in the early morning, preventing homeless people from coming in out of the cold.

Doors at OPL's main branch on Metcalfe Street now stay locked until 9:30

Coun. Catherine McKenney says the Ottawa Public Library should reverse a decision to keep the doors of the main branch locked until later in the morning, saying it leaves some of the city's most vulnerable residents without a place to keep warm. 0:58

An Ottawa city councillor is calling on library officials to reverse a decision to keep the doors of the main branch locked in the early morning, preventing homeless people from coming in out of the cold.

The exterior doors of the Ottawa Public Library's (OPL) Metcalfe Street branch used to open as early as 6 a.m., four hours earlier than the library itself.

That offered a window of several hours during which members of the public could stay warm in the lobby.

In November, the library changed that policy, unlocking the doors at 9:30 a.m. as library staff arrive for work.

I think that to lock people out who are homeless, who don't have a voice, I think it speaks volumes- Catherine McKenney

The decision came after damage was done to the lobby and public washrooms including a smashed display case, a damaged radiator and graffiti, and evidence of drug use, fights and urination on the floor, the library said. 

But Somerset Coun. Catherine McKenney said they're "disappointed" the library has changed its open-door policy, especially given the city's recent declaration of a housing and homelessness emergency.

'No other group would be locked out of a public building,' said Coun. Catherine McKenney. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

"If a few people are causing problems, you don't punish everyone," McKenney, who uses they/them pronouns, told CBC.

"Many, many people went in there. They're quiet. They are poor. They are homeless. So if that [damage] is happening, if there are one or two people who are causing some damage, then I would suggest [the OPL] hire security."

'Safest thing for everyone'

The OPL sold the building that houses the Metcalfe Street branch last year and is now a tenant, according to Donna Clark, division manager of branch operations.

She said the library's contract with the building's new owner clearly states the OPL is responsible for the safety and security of the lobby area.

"We experienced damage to the property," Clark said.

"We knew we had to take some type of action to secure this space for everybody."

Library officials say they made the decision to keep the doors locked after damage was done to the lobby and washrooms. (Jean Delisle/CBC)

Clark said the decision was made with everyone's safety in mind.

"We felt at the end of the day this was the safest thing for everybody involved, including someone who may have been sleeping in there, because there was no security or no staff present. We didn't want to take the responsibility of something terrible happening."

OPL gave warning

Clark said it's not the library's intent to take away a place for the homeless to feel safe and stay warm.

"We do a tremendous amount of work with the vulnerable sector and the homeless as a library, as an institution. So we certainly don't close our doors to them, we welcome them here to use our facilities."

Another library official told CBC the OPL contacted support agencies in the city before the change so alternative arrangements could be made for the 10 to 15 people who regularly occupied the lobby in the early mornings.

Catherine Seaman, manager of customer experience, says the Ottawa Public Library is working with organizations in the area to provide alternate options to people who used to use the library lobby to keep warm in the mornings.  0:47

McKenney said they know of one formerly homeless woman who used to rely on the library's lobby every morning to stay warm.

"[She] took the bus until 3:30 or four in the morning, as long as she could, would walk around staying as warm as possible, staying awake, and then go into the library at 6:30 a.m.," McKenney said.

"No other group would be locked out of a public building. I think that to lock people out who are homeless, who don't have a voice, I think it speaks volumes."

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