Aggressive Behavior, Increased Drug Use at Burlington's Downtown Library Prompt Calls for Help | City | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Aggressive Behavior, Increased Drug Use at Burlington's Downtown Library Prompt Calls for Help


Published May 1, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Mary Danko

Librarians at Burlington's Fletcher Free Library are doing far more these days than just shelving books. They're monitoring security cameras, trying to distinguish naps from drug overdoses and employing something called "verbal judo" to calm agitated patrons.

The downtown library has always been the proverbial "community living room," open and free to all. That's long made it a welcoming place for a contingent of homeless people, some of whom spend much of their day on library grounds.

But a new wave of drugs and spiking rates of homelessness have presented new, and more frequent, challenges for staff. They regularly find people sleeping in alcoves and using drugs in the bathrooms — then encounter resistance or even aggression when they ask patrons to leave. That's a change for library director Mary Danko, who's been on the job for seven years.

"Before, we used to say to people, 'Hey, don't forget you're [trespassing],' and they'd be like, 'Oh, I forgot,' or they'd leave," she said. "Now, they'll be like, 'Well, what are you going to do about it?'"

As the problems mount, the library has asked city officials for more money to beef up security and address other needs. Whether the city, which is grappling with a $13.1 million budget deficit, can provide extra funding remains an open question.

"We're just not trained for this," library staffer Melissa Hutson told Mayor Emma Mulvaney-Stanak at a special Library Commission meeting last month. "We want to help everybody, but we get to a point where we don't know what to do here."

Library staff have tried to keep up by learning new skills, including verbal judo, a nationally recognized technique that diffuses tension through gentle conversation. Some know how to administer Narcan to reverse overdoses, though they also call 911. They provide patrons with "harm reduction packs" that include drug testing strips and flyers describing the health risks of intravenous drug use. And in recent years, some staff members have spent part of their Thanksgiving holiday providing patrons prepackaged turkey dinners.

But staff say compassion only gets them so far. Library rules forbid a wide range of behaviors and levy the harshest punishments for fighting, threatening people and using drugs. People can be kicked out for as long as 180 days, though they can appeal. Last year, library staff issued trespass notices that barred more than 175 people from the grounds. They are on track to reach that number again in 2024.

Police calls are also up. Officers have responded there 132 times this year — about 100 more than during the same period in 2023, data show. In one of the more serious incidents, a patron headbutted a security guard, giving him a concussion.

Wyatt from Chocolate Thunder Security - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Wyatt from Chocolate Thunder Security

The library has paid for private security for nearly a decade, but until 2023, the arrangement was only part time. Now, a guard from Chocolate Thunder Security is on duty every hour the library is open, including weekends, which costs $135,000 a year. Guards patrol the stacks and stairwells every 15 minutes, then walk the building's perimeter, picking up used needles.

For the past couple of months, the police department has loaned the library a pair of staffers known as community service liaisons for a few hours every week to help connect people to social services. Library staffers who would otherwise be designing new programs are instead taking shifts at a desk placed outside the bathrooms to discourage people from using drugs.

Wyatt, a Chocolate Thunder security guard who didn't want his last name published due to safety concerns, got the library gig after a previous stint as a seasonal employee in City Hall Park, another hot spot for illegal activity. At the library, Wyatt said, he can detect drug use in the bathroom by ear: the rustle of someone digging in a bag, the crinkle of tinfoil, the sound of a syringe hitting the tile floor. Last year, police and EMTs responded to more than a dozen overdoses on library property, data show.

A few weeks ago, Wyatt was on break when he heard a radio call about an overdose in the men's bathroom. He rushed upstairs and recognized the man as a patron who greeted him every day. The man, who had turned blue, was revived after his friends dosed him five times with Narcan.

Wyatt knows there's been a surge in such scenes. "But it's another thing entirely to see it happen and affect somebody firsthand," he said. "Honestly, that's probably the toughest part of this job. Because I'm in a library. I see the full spectrum of humanity."

On a recent afternoon, a young person lugging a backpack, blanket and bedroll worked on an art project in the atrium while an older man wearing a ballcap read a newspaper a few tables over.

Another day, teenagers on school break played Uno upstairs. Outside, a woman with a mental illness was talking to people who weren't there.

It's unclear if the library's changing nature is discouraging visitors. Both the number of visitors and total books checked out have fallen since the pandemic, but Danko said the trends can't be pinned on public safety concerns alone. More people than previously are using ebooks instead of borrowing them in person, and the library's New North End branch, which opened in 2021, has peeled off some patrons who would otherwise come downtown. Meantime, youth program attendance is at an all-time high.

Norm Bushway (left) and Collin Morris - COURTNEY LAMDIN ©️ SEVEN DAYS
  • Courtney Lamdin ©️ Seven Days
  • Norm Bushway (left) and Collin Morris

Collin Morris, who is homeless, comes to the library every day to read, search for jobs or just pass the time. One day last week, Wyatt suggested he apply for a position with the city parks department.

"These guys helped me out a lot, honestly," Morris said as his service dog, Simba, napped at his feet. "I'm not used to it. I'm from New York, [where] nobody wants to help you. But it's nice here. It's relaxing."

"You have all the other stuff that goes on here, too," added his friend, Norm Bushway, who said he's in recovery. He gestured toward people loitering at the entrance, some clearly under the influence.

"Yeah," Morris said. "That's the shitty part."

At their meeting with the mayor last month, library commissioners asked for another security guard to patrol on weekends and for an on-site social worker, explaining that the library had recently lost out on a grant that would have paid for one. They also asked for more security cameras and suggested other boards and commissions meet there to witness the library's struggles. Danko said she hopes state lawmakers will pass H.72, a bill that could allow Burlington to open a site for people to use drugs under supervision.

If the bill fails, Danko said, "we are the safe injection site."

Mulvaney-Stanak was moved by the entreaties but made no promises, citing the tough budget year ahead. Just last week, the mayor announced that the city's expected $9 million deficit had ballooned to $13.1 million, largely due to a clerical error and higher-than-anticipated health care costs. Mulvaney-Stanak, department heads and city councilors have to balance the budget before July 1, when the new fiscal year begins.

At a press conference about the budget woes, Mulvaney-Stanak assured the public she's committed to community safety, including hiring more police officers. She also shouted out the library, saying the city needs to "[address] security and support" for its staff.

Those staffers are adjusting to a new reality, one where a single day can involve handing out trespass notices and attending a weekly sing-along with toddlers. They're also looking toward the future. Fletcher Free is preparing to launch a $35 million capital campaign to renovate the building with an outdoor terrace, bathrooms on every floor and meeting rooms, including one where patrons could meet with social workers and health care providers.

"I so believe in the power of public libraries, [and] I'm so committed to making sure that that's always going to be available," Danko said. "For me, this is just what we've got to do ... Every day we're going to make it work."

As Danko packed up one night last week, a confrontation was brewing outside. A security guard had asked a homeless woman, Amber Sanders, to leave after seeing her in the restroom with an unlit cigarette — and again when she tried using the public phone in the library foyer. Sanders stomped out of the building and stuffed items into her backpack, spewing expletives.

Underdressed for the weather in a tank top and capris, she braced herself against the quickening wind and pondered where she'd go next.

"I'll figure it out," she said, "as we all do."

Wiping away tears, she picked up her bag and walked down the street.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Reading the Room | Aggressive behavior, increased drug use at Burlington's downtown library prompt calls for help"

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