In from the cold

Ricky Gurchan has a pile of newspapers in front of him and a stack of books, starting with a Jonathan Franzen tome. His “fastidious” reading of the newspaper has given him strong views on presidential politics — Donald Trump is a clown, he says, and he’d vote for either of the Democratic candidates if they ran with Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

After he reads through the papers, he begins the crossword and Sudoku puzzles, which fill the day, most of which he’ll spend at the Mid-Manhattan Library on 40th Street and 5th Avenue.

Gurchan, 64, is homeless and says he sleeps on the street or in the subway. He rents a storage locker in Manhattan to stow his blankets and sleeping bags. He’s “acclimated” to the night, he says, but spends the day out of the cold at the library.
Inside the sibling branch

Gurchan is one of many street homeless individuals who spends time at the Mid-Manhattan branch, which is the largest circulating branch in the New York Public Library system, receiving 1.7 million visits last year.

The workmanlike library is across the street from the elegant flagship building, whose wide stone steps and pair of lions are New York City icons. Both libraries were up for change during the Bloomberg administration, when the NYPL planned to redesign the main library, shipping some of its research tomes to New Jersey, and sell the Mid-Manhattan branch for needed funds. After pounding resistance from almost everyone, the NYPL board shelved the plan. The more humble but extremely useful Mid-Manhattan branch lives on (only the children’s collection circulates at the main building), though a full interior renovation is scheduled for the end of next year.

For now, the less glamorous sibling has extended weeknight and weekend hours (though the library was closed for a rare holiday yesterday, on Presidents’ Day), good Wi-Fi, and five floors of stacks of books mixed with tables where patrons can sit. In another room on the first floor, food is allowed.

Today’s forecast calls for welcome warmth but this past weekend brought dangerous subzero temperatures. Mayor Bill de Blasio urged homeless New Yorkers to take shelter, and he took part in the outreach effort during a visit to the subway. A “code blue” emergency notice meant that no one seeking shelter would be turned away.

Still, many individuals who are street homeless prefer to make do on their own.

Dangerous and overcrowded conditions at shelters—Gurchan describes fights and being forced to steer clear of gang members—make the quiet floors of the library seem preferable during daytime hours at least. The only hazard may be security guards who periodically walk through the tables waking up patrons who have dozed off.
‘Where am I going to go?’

The library is a “public space” for those “without alternatives,” says a 50-year-old man on a recent visit to the library who gave his name as Kush M. He says he might spend a day or two collecting cans to recycle, but then pass a few days here. He resents the “pigeonholing” that says he merely comes here to get out of the cold. It’s “almost like a college campus, with a wide variety of possible activities”—computer classes, language groups, books and DVDs.

In an attempt to serve the needs of all its patrons, in 2012 the library set up a small office on the third floor where staff members from the non-profit “Single Stop” can help with public benefits, health care, and referrals for job training. Homeless people are given a sheet with addresses and schedules for soup kitchens and shelters, showers and places to pick up toiletries.

For Victor Gabino, an Army veteran who was evicted from an apartment in Queens, the neighborhood is central to his day. In the summer, he says he plays chess and reads the paper in Bryant Park. In the winter, he’s here. Most people stay to themselves, Gabino says—he gets as much computer time as he can, communicating with family from Ecuador on Facebook. He was upset when he heard the library was going to be sold, glad to have it open for now.

“Damn man,” he says, “where am I going to go?”

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