Homeless will get help from Atlanta’s Central Library during renovation

When Atlanta-Fulton County's Central Library closes for renovations this summer, Latricia Mays will no longer be able to log on to computers there when she has business that can only be conducted online. Daren Carland will have to find somewhere else to respond to emails. And Robert Robinson will need another way to look for jobs.

In March alone, more than 4,000 people went to Central Library downtown to use the computers, often several times a week. And the library's closure — which could last as long as two years — will disrupt a downtown ecosystem that provides both services and shelter for people who come into the building for everything from Internet access to air conditioning.

One of those needs will be met with a pilot program that will bring wifi and laptop computers to Woodruff Park, a scant two blocks from the downtown library. Beginning this summer, Central Atlanta Progress and the Atlanta-Fulton Public Library System are partnering to bring as many as 10 laptops to the park two to four days a week for four to six hours a day.

It won’t be able to completely fill the need for Internet access, but organizers hope it will make a dent, particularly for the homeless population and other underserved or underemployed individuals who often make use of the library’s Internet access and computers. And, they say, the closure could even have the benefit of forcing a problem that’s hidden inside the library to the forefront, resulting in more programs or services to help the homeless.

“It could be a positive, unintended consequence,” said Ansley Whipple, the project manager for Woodruff Park with Central Atlanta Progress.

Whipple said there aren’t many spaces in the city that are open and accessible for anyone to gather, but that libraries and parks are among them. By moving people into the park, she said, it promotes its use while creating a specific activity with a guided interaction. Central Atlanta Progress has also scheduled yoga classes and history tours at the park, and has opened a game cart with board games that people can borrow. She hopes to staff it with a social worker, so there is often someone at Woodruff who can help connect people with services.

Central Library in Atlanta will close for renovations this summer. (Rebecca Breyer) AJC FILE PHOTO

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“Space is very political,” Whipple said. “This is going to create a shift in behavior, in use, who’s using the space. It’s going to disrupt things. In the tech industry, disruption is the best thing you can do. But it’s going to involve growing pains.”

Robinson, who is staying with his grandparents while looking for a job after moving to Atlanta three weeks ago, said homeless residents who use the library have already helped him find resources that he wouldn't have known how to access. He worries that most residents are there more for the shelter than the Internet access, and questioned what opportunities there would be for them to find indoor spaces, in addition to accessing technology in the park.

It’s also a concern of Central Atlanta Progress, particularly since Atlanta is hosting the Super Bowl in 2019. Coupled with the library renovation, Whipple said, that could help create the incentive the city needs to provide more shelter and other services.

“Visibility isn’t inherently a wrong thing,” said Paige Sullivan, Central Atlanta Progress’ marketing manager. “Questions of the city’s identity are at play here.”

Atlanta had 3,600 homeless people in 2017, including 1,200 downtown, said George Chidi, the social impact director for Central Atlanta Progress. Many who use the library are not chronically homeless, he said, and access to technology so they can apply for jobs helps them get back on their feet.

Amanda Densmore, a community engagement librarian, said she wasn’t aware of other library systems in the country that had started similar technology programs outside their buildings. While computer sessions inside the library are limited to 30 minutes without a library card, Densmore said she thinks she can let people stay online for an hour at the park. She also thinks the move will expand services to people who may not know what the library offers.

A grant from Southwest Airlines is paying the $15,000 to install high-speed fiber through the Equitable Building and that building’s owner is covering the $1,000 monthly cost for services, Whipple said. The laptops will also be donated.

Whether or not libraries should get into the business of social work is a huge debate, said Claudia Strange, a library spokesperson. For now, the Atlanta-Fulton system is working to get into the community more, to provide connections where more people can access the services they need. Now, she said, the library offers “a pretty substantial amount of time” where patrons can access computers, heat or air conditioning and bathrooms. So it’s a place that many people who lack those amenities want to be.

“Downtown is going through a resurgence and I think the timing is actually good,” Whipple said. “I think it’s time for a reckoning.”