New Windsor library rules unfairly discriminate against homeless, advocates say

The Windsor Public Library (WPL) has received criticism from homelessness and poverty reduction advocates concerned that new rules at the library unfairly discriminate against people who are homeless. 

Experts are concerned about new rules around sleeping, offensive body odour and personal belongings

Patsy Copus runs the Angels for the Homeless Facebook page. She says that the library's new rules aren't fair for everyone. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

The Windsor Public Library (WPL) is facing criticism from homelessness and poverty reduction advocates concerned that new rules at the library unfairly discriminate against people who are homeless.

As part of the WPL's customer code of conduct, anyone who visits a library branch is expected to be respectful, considerate, law-abiding and responsible. 

WPL's code of conduct goes even further, including provisions stating that patrons can't sleep or emit offensive smells. Patrons are also only allowed to bring a maximum of three bags, suitcases, backpacks or boxes — a rule implemented because of the smaller size of the Central Branch at 185 Ouellette Ave.

Patsy Copus — who runs the Angels for the Homeless Facebook page — said that the library's rules aren't for everyone, and especially affects individuals at the Central Branch location.

Pointing to the rule about offensive odours, Copus said not everyone has access to resources like showers, including individuals experiencing homelessness. 

"These people don't have public showers, they can't shower before they go in there," she said. "So having that as one of the rules is pretty discriminating."

Included in the Windsor Public Library's new rules are provisions stating that patrons can't sleep in the library, or emit offensive body odour. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

Travis Reitsma, a PhD candidate in sociology at the University of Windsor who studies poverty reduction, said some of the new rules struck him as "openly classist."

"Especially when you talk about obnoxious smells or sleeping in the library or limiting the number of items you can bring in, these are things that directly impact people in extreme poverty who often have no other place to go, who have no access to safe and warm places to sleep for even a short period of time, or access to a shower or clean clothes," he said. 

Still, library CEO Kitty Pope said staff were shocked to learn about the reaction generated by the new rules.

"As a public library, we welcome everybody," she said. "And I think that there is a very narrow definition of some of those things."

... These are things that directly impact people in extreme poverty ...- Travis Reitsma, PhD Candidate, University of Windsor

Pope explained that the library maintains two "fundamental principles." First, no one can do anything illegal inside a library. Second, no one should bother anyone else in a library. 

"So that offensive odour comes under that umbrella," she said, adding that the odour rule has been part of the library's code of conduct "for many years."

At the same time, Pope said that library staff rarely speak to patrons about personal hygiene.

"That whole discussion, we are shocked at, because that's not what we usually deal with," she said.

Windsor Public Library CEO Kitty Pope says she's surprised by the backlash to the new rules. (Tahmina Aziz/CBC)

Additionally, Pope said that the rule about limiting personal belongings is a result of the fact that the new Central Branch is smaller than the previous location.

"We simply don't have the room," she said. "And so folks coming in with four and five and six large bags, we can't accommodate them in this small space. It has nothing to do with who they are."

Pope said that anyone offended or upset by the library's rule should consult with staff.

"Come and talk to us and we would be glad to explain how we interpret it, how we use it," she said. "And the bottom line is don't do anything illegal in the library and don't bother the guy next to you."

Despite some of the backlash received by the library, Pope said visitors have been "nothing but gracious."

"We have had no negative response from our customers who walk in the door everyday," she said. "So perhaps that's why we're a little surprised about … the social media response."

WPL will test out the new rules for the next 10 months to determine whether the updated code of conduct will remain permanent.

With files from Tahmina Aziz


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