Kansas City Public Library embraces the homeless

Some public libraries try to discourage homeless people from hanging around.

Others embrace them.

The Kansas City Public Library even invites them to have a cup of coffee and a pastry while they learn about job counseling, transportation assistance and other social services that can help people get back on their feet.

“It’s the only place that I go here where they don’t judge me,” said Ray Kessinger, who found himself homeless, alone and stuck in Kansas City when the bottom fell out of his business two months ago and he quickly ran through his savings.

The Central Library at 14 W. 10th St. is also the only place where Kessinger has found a comprehensive pamphlet listing services for the homeless and where to find meals each day of the week. On the third Wednesday of every month, the library offers a one-hour Coffee and Conversations in the third-floor Grand Reading Room, where homeless patrons can get a bite, pick up some free books and learn from each other. This week, Austin Taylor from Goodwill Industries came to tell them about job-seeking assistance his organization can provide.

“I’m really here to learn from you guys,” said Taylor, who was formerly homeless, to about 20 participants. “I want to know, and Goodwill wants to know, what do you need? What can make life better?”

The discussion got off to a start with frustration over bus times and routes and how inconvenient it is to get to Olathe for county business. Other questions: How do you get an ID and Social Security card? Why do job applications now ask whether you have ever been convicted of a felony when they used to ask only about the last seven years?

The homeless people helped one another out, providing suggestions or advice from their own experiences.

Andrew Stueven, 40, lost his job as a groundsman with a tree service in 2013 and has been unable to find steady work since. He sleeps at the Kansas City Rescue Mission.

“I come to the library about every day,” Stueven said, “just to read or to kill some time, basically.”

Stueven, who was born with DiGeorge Syndrome, said he was learning some new things at Wednesday’s gathering.

“I might be a little slow at things, but I can comprehend what they’re saying and what they’re talking about and where to go for help,” he said. “It is a wonderful tool at the library for help.”

Coffee and Conversations began in October and was based on a program at the Dallas Public Library. The Kansas City Library turned to AmeriCorps to help make the library more accessible to underserved and vulnerable patrons, like the homeless or veterans. They can also use the library’s computers and Wi-Fi and take advantage of resume assistance from the H&R Block Business & Career Center.

“A lot of shelters close at 6 a.m., and then people are out on the streets and they don’t know where to go,” said AmeriCorps worker Emily Luedtke. “It’s pretty important to the Kansas City library that we’re welcoming of all our patrons, everyone who chooses to be here. It doesn’t matter if they’re housed or not. That’s not an issue. Every citizen can use the library.”

Organizers try to offer a creative activity at each monthly gathering. On Wednesday, the homeless patrons were encouraged to finish the sentence “I love my library because...” on a heart-shaped piece of construction paper. Stueven didn’t finish the sentence but said he probably would have written, “Thanks for caring.”

The next meeting, at 10:30 a.m. March 15, will feature lawyers offering free legal advice. The activity will probably be making wallets out of duct tape. Jason Pearl, another AmeriCorps worker at the library, said he would like to find someone to donate disposable cameras for a future project.

“The idea is to hand them out, and letting these folks take a camera and depict what their life is outside of here,” he said, “and then doing an art exhibit for one of the First Fridays this summer.”

Kessinger, whose company installs safety surfaces for playgrounds, hopes to be back at work long before then. In the meantime, he is grateful that the library has been so welcoming while he has been in limbo.

“Sometimes I just want to talk to somebody,” he said. “I’ve never felt like I was no good here.”