SALT LAKE CITY — Chip Ward got more than he bargained for at the Salt Lake City Public Library. From 2000 to 2007, while Ward was the library’s assistant director, his unofficial job description was expanded to include looking after the chronically homeless — those whose homelessness is driven by a disabling condition like mental illness, a physical disability or addiction.
As a public space, metropolitan libraries become shelters for these folks during the daytime. They aren’t allowed to stay in normal homeless shelters once the morning arrives. Libraries are one of the few places the chronically homeless are allowed to visit during these hours. As a result, library employees become liaisons between the homeless and social workers, medical professionals and police officers.
“Libraries are dealing with this incredible challenge,” Ward told the Deseret News during a recent phone interview. “They don’t have the training for it, they’re not getting any additional resources for it and they’re not even being acknowledged for what they’re doing. And that just seemed to me to be unfair. Plus, abandoning mentally ill people to the streets is cruel and immoral.”
As he prepped for retirement in 2007, Ward attended a two-week writing retreat with authors that included Terry Tempest Williams and Rebecca Solnit. He wanted to compose his thoughts on libraries and the chronically homeless. The end result, an essay called “What They Didn’t Teach Us in Library School,” became the starting point for “The Public,” a new film written, directed by and starring Emilio Estevez, who first read Ward’s essay in the Los Angeles Times.
“The Public,” which was released in select theaters nationwide last week, tells of a librarian who sides with a group of homeless people after they organize a sit-in to avoid the deadly winter cold. The film became a decade-long passion project for Estevez.
“You know, going to the money people in Hollywood and saying, ‘I want to make a movie about homeless people in a public library,’ doesn’t push the blockbuster button,” Ward said.
Through many stops and starts, Ward said he and Estevez maintained contact via email — “It was sort of like digital pen pals, I guess,” Ward said. In fact, the two men didn’t meet in person until a recent screening of “The Public” at the City Library.
In Ward’s original essay, he describes the disjointed, ineffective, revolving door nature of how cities often deal with the chronically homeless: They get shuffled between hospitals, jails, clinics and other shelters, with little to no communication between these departments. Consequently, the homeless don’t get the long-term help they need, and their problems persist.
“It is not only immoral to ignore people who are suffering illness in our midst, it's downright stupid public policy,” Ward’s essay states. “We do not spend too little on the problems of the mentally disabled homeless, as is often assumed, instead we spend extravagantly but foolishly.” He estimates that each transient homeless person can cost taxpayers between $20,000 and $150,000 annually. “For that kind of taxpayer money, we could get our mentally ill off the streets and into stable housing environments with enough leftover for the kinds of support services most of them need to stay off the street.”
This “Housing First” approach was uncommon in 2007, but later gained traction locally and nationally. Salt Lake’s efforts were lauded in a widely circulated 2015 NPR piece, which reported that Salt Lake had reduced its chronic homeless population by 91 percent, according to the city’s annual homelessness report. These figures, it was later revealed, were greatly exaggerated. Additionally, funding was slashed for these Salt Lake housing programs after 2015, Reuters reported.
Ward has largely been removed from all of this since his essay was first published. Upon retiring in 2007, he moved to Torrey, a rural town in southern Utah, where he's continued to publish his writing. (Torrey’s library, Ward said, is merely a bookmobile.) He said he’s not sure how Salt Lake is handling the chronically homeless these days, but “it’s good to see that people are at least realizing that consigning people to the streets doesn’t solve anything.” Given the city’s regression on its Housing First efforts, though, maybe those collective realizations are fading.1 comment on this story
“I think we have a very dear and cherished myth in this country that the economy works as an open field, that there is always the possibility for mobility, and that there are opportunities if you look for them, and that we can take care of everybody — that the American economy is like a rising sea that lifts all boats. And it really isn’t true,” Ward said. “There are some people who are going to need more than pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. They need help. And in a hyper-individualistic society, it’s hard to get people to say, ‘It’s not your fault, and I’m going to help you.’
“On an individual level,” he continued, “it’s not that hard to simply make eye contact, speak and acknowledge people on the street as individuals who have individual stories, who are not a group. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is to decide ‘I will no longer look away.’”