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Saturday, November 22, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 43.0° F  Fog/Mist
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'You can't sleep in the library'

Marie Messinger was "just appalled." The other day at the Central Library, she saw an apparently homeless woman being given the bum's rush. The woman was sitting silently at a desk with a book in front of her when a library staffer brusquely admonished: "This is your second warning. You can't sleep in the library."

The woman reacted apologetically. Messinger, a Madison resident (who, it so happens, used to be married to the guy who writes Isthmus' popular "Watchdog" column), felt the woman should have been left alone.

"She wasn't causing any trouble or anything," says Messinger, sympathizing with a homeless person who wants to come in from the cold. "It's November."

But library director Barb Dimick says transients, many of whom are mentally ill and/or abuse substances, are "a huge issue" for the library, which has worked with police and homeless advocates to develop responsible policies. The result: "We have certain rules that people have to follow when they come in."

These include not being able to enter with more than two bags of a certain size, not drinking or having alcohol, and not sleeping. "If you would allow everybody to sleep in here who wanted to sleep in here, we wouldn't be a library anymore," says Dimick. "We'd be a shelter."

Carol Froistad, a supervisor at the Central Library, says police were called two to three times a week last winter in response to problems. This year, staff is trying to be more vigilant, waking people as soon as they nod off and keeping track of who's been warned. This has helped reduce the need to call the cops, which most often happens "when we can't wake them and get them out of the library."

But Messinger says this amounts to treating homeless people differently: "If this woman were a student at the university, nobody would say you can't sleep in the library." As usual, she's right.

"We do not have any prescribed policy for sleeping in the library," says Dineen Grow, head of security at UW Memorial Library. Unless a person is causing a disturbance - say, by snoring loudly or lying on the floor - he or she would be left alone.

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