A Tragedy at the Library

des-moinesDes Moines, the capital of Iowa, is unknown to the outside world.  People whoosh past it on I-80 and don’t give it a second look.  Actually, Des Moines is a lovely small city, though no one would call it a tourist destination—and some even call it “Dead Moines.”  Perhaps you know it as Bill Bryson’s birthplace from his memoir, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid.

Bibliophiles prefer Iowa City, a UNESCO City of Literature, but regional literature experts occasionally check out the Des Moines Public Library’s special collection of Iowa Writers, which includes books by forgotten Pulitzer Prize winners MacKinlay Kantor, Susan Glaspell, Margaret Wilson, Hamlin Garland, and Edna Ferber. 

Here is why I have crossed the Des Moines Library off my list:   I am a coward.

On  September 17, a homeless man, David Franklin Smith, entered the atrium of the Des Moines Public Library, poured a flammable liquid on himself, and set himself on fire.  The staff put out the flames with a fire extinguisher, and Smith was airlifted to the burn unit at the University of Iowa Hospital in Iowa City,  where he died.  The police concluded he committed suicide.

des moines libraryThe world is so dangerous these days—random shootings, terrorism,  global warming, xenophobia, insane politics—and now a mentally ill man setting himself on fire.  We’re terrified by the things that happen day after day. 

Somehow, it is taken for granted that libraries must double as unaccredited centers for the homeless.  Libraries in San Francisco, Washington, D.C., and Philadelphia have hired social workers to deal with the homeless and mentally ill patrons. 

Bravo!  I exclaimed when I read about these initiatives.  

But this problem has fallen in the laps of the libraries and should not be their responsibility.  It is terrific that they have stepped up—but what choice do they have?  Why doesn’t the govenment provide  halfway houses, more homeless centers, and even apartments for the homelesss?  Surely the streets–and the libraries–aren’t a good solution!  

What a tragic world! 

6 thoughts on “A Tragedy at the Library”

  1. I’m guessing that the Des Moines library, like our recently-expanded Carnegie jewel in West Springfield, Massachusetts, is centrally located, where people can access it by bus, bicycle or on foot, as well as by car.
    That fact and the atmosphere–quiet, warm, welcoming, undemanding–make it an attractive safe haven for people with nowhere else to go.
    The nearest shelter is in the city across the river, and guests aren’t allowed to be there during the daytime. I know one woman who couldn’t afford an apartment and rented a storage unit–cold, but safe.
    I don’t have the answers. I wish I did. But i know we can each do one good thing every day.

    1. It really is the same story wherever one goes: shelters closed during the day, churches picking up the slack (for meals, I think,) and, as you say, the libraries are a safe haven. So much money should be invested in this problem.

  2. How awful. The US has for decades prioritized low taxes over helping its citizens. I know a couple of families with severely troubled family members, and they get no government help–and are helpless to know what to do themselves. It’s great that libraries step in and help vulnerable people in the community, but a lot of libraries are also underfunded, and in some rural areas they’re being shuttered. I hope that compassion will make a comeback someday.

    1. Yes, even small cities are teeming with homeless people now, and many need meds–whether they’re off their meds, or don’t have access to them, I do not know. Mental hospitals seem like a sad solution, but there are so many empty facilities around here–closed in the last few years–which means there is even less help for the poor and needy.

      Compassion may be the only answer!

    2. There’s the problem in a nutshell. People care more about keeping their taxes low than caring about what’s happening in this country. They either don’t know or don’t care what taxes are for.

      1. It would probably take such a tiny amount–maybe a penny or so–to fund some good programs. Put the presidential candidates on it!

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