The exterior of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library
credit: Ashley Clarke

Patrons of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library will soon need to find another branch when the downtown library closes for a three-year renovation. District officials are working to alleviate some of the inconvenience.

The closure is set for 5:30 p.m. on March 4, according to signs plastered all over the building. Online outreach, advertisements, a media briefing and a special edition of the library’s online newsletter, which reaches around 200,000 people, informed the public of the library’s closing.

While speculation swirled for several years that the library would be closing in the near future, the selection of an interim “Library Express” at location 1990 K St. NW was announced on June 29, 2016. The public first learned of the flagship library’s official closing date on Feb. 2.

A sign that reads "Library Closing March 4, 5:30 p.m. for construction."

Signage visible through the front windows of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library. | Photo by Ashley Clarke

Similar to most any library, MLK patrons check out books, use computers and conduct research. What stands out is that this library was the second in the country to hire a social worker and prioritize assisting people experiencing homelessness.

The MLK branch offers typing classes, clothing repair workshops, adult literacy programs and other special programming for people in those circumstances, not to mention simply  a place to escape the elements. For this reason, city transport vans drop off and pick up shelter residents at the library every morning and evening.

“This library has a lot for the homeless community,” Tonya Bibbs told Street Sense as she used one of the desks at the library to work. “I don’t know where we are going to go.”

Bibbs said she was unaware of the future plans for a temporary library or alternative resources that  DCPL plans to set up.

Jack, an artist experiencing homelessness, has been using the MLK library for many years as a space to write, draw and conduct research for his art.  He mostly uses the expansive book collection. When he can’t find something in a book, he uses a computer. All his work is an effort to educate himself in hopes of changing his situation.

“I come to take advantage of what’s around me,” Jack said.

The closure will be inconvenient, but the renovations show a sign of progress, according to Jack. He worries about what may happen to some of the homeless patrons during the renovations.

“A lot of people won’t be here when it’s finished,” he said.

A man holds up a sketchbook.

Jack, a local artist and library patron, shows off work he completed at the MLK branch. | Photo by Ashley Clarke

The library’s closing indicates systemic failures to help homeless people in the neighborhood, according to community advocate Eric Sheptock.

The First Congregational United Church of Christ, located next to the MLK Library, no longer offers meals and other services to the homeless as it once did before closing for renovation in January 2007.

Catholic Charities D.C., whose office is located across the street from the library and the church, offers meals to homeless people every Wednesday. “[March 8] will be the first Wednesday that they can’t wait in MLK or re-enter the library to eat,” Sheptock wrote in an e-mail.

Using the library as a primary drop-off and pickup location for the shelter vans demonstrates that the government sees the library as a de-facto day center, according to Sheptock. He has been working with the community surrounding the library to find ways it can offer services to homeless people during the renovations and has approached the D.C. Department of Human Services and the nearby Church of the Epiphany in hopes of arranging a place for homeless people to go during the day.

The Department of Human Services did not reply to requests for comment.

For many, the closing of the library emphasizes the need for a downtown day center for homeless people. A daytime service center would serve as an access point for D.C.’s Interagency Council on Homelessness’ (ICH) coordinated entry system and allow people experiencing homelessness to access homeless prevention assistance, shelter referrals and other supportive services, according to ICH’s 2015-2020 Strategic Plan.

During the renovations, the Library Express will operate approximately a 25-minute walk away from the MLK branch. The short-term space will have a small collection of books and 30 public computers. DCPL acknowledges that many of its patrons are experiencing homelessness and will need more than just the Library Express.

Some services normally offered by the MLK Library will be held remotely at various other branches during the renovation and will focus on what is unique to the branch, according to George Williams, a spokesperson for D.C. Public Library.

“There are some services that we have that can be somewhat duplicative, so instead of recreating the wheel, we’re thinking about how to expand in different ways,” Williams said in an interview.

The Adult Literacy Resource Center and The Center for Accessibility, which offers services to people who are visually impaired or face other accessibility challenges, will both be offered at the Library Express. The hours at many DCPL branches have been expanded.

DCPL will continue to offer many of the same services to the homeless community that it does now. They will continue to partner with organizations with resources for the homeless community, such as Pathways to Housing, whose mission is to transform lives by ending homelessness and supporting recovery for people with disabilities.

Coffee & Conversation, a program held at the MLK branch for people experiencing homelessness, will be offered at the Benning (Dorothy I. Height), Mt. Pleasant, Northeast, Northwest One, Shaw (Watha T. Daniel), Southeast, Tenley-Friendship and West End libraries during the renovation.

“Customers without homes come to the library to use the exact same things that other customers that have homes come to use,” Williams said, citing public access computers as a prime example.

Read our vendors’ experience with the library and opinions on its closure here.

CORRECTION (02.23.2017): 
An earlier version of this article stated that the locations in which Coffee & Conversation would be offered during the MLK Library renovation had yet to be determined. The article has been updated to share which branches will hold the program during construction.