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Urban Etiquette

Ellen Vanstone answers your questions about the annoying behaviours, poor manners and impatient encounters that dot the days of a city dweller.

Urban Etiquette: Is segregating homeless library users a heartless idea?

I understand your frustration and I don’t think you are heartless, but your muddy thinking is a serious threat to our democracy, writes Ellen Vanstone.

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Ani Castillo / For Metro

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Dear Ellen,

I spend a lot of time in public libraries, which are amazing except for one issue: homeless people. I understand they need shelter from our harsh climate. But each one sits at a different communal table, which forbids the rest of us sitting there due to the very strong smell. Secondly, they occupy the computers constantly. Even though a sign says, “Priority will be given to those who use scanner and printer,” I have to wait a long time for these guys to finish their games. I want to suggest designating an area for homeless people and limiting their computer time. But I’m worried my complaint will be ignored or, worse, I may be judged as heartless. Any suggestions will be greatly appreciated.


Dear Dylan,

I understand your frustration and I don’t think you are heartless, but your muddy thinking is a serious threat to our democracy.

I myself would like to designate a special area for rich people who drive giant SUVs in the city, and an educational area for privileged white women who mindlessly vote for privileged white racist misogynist men, and a dungeon area for people who say “between you and I" instead of “between you and me.”

But even though all those groups are just as offensive and inconveniencing to me as less privileged, library-dwelling people are to you, they all have rights as citizens that we must recognize and respect if we want Canada to fulfill its destiny as a beacon of democracy and a bastion of basic human decency.

It’s easy to feel smug about how fabulously better we are than the brutally corrupt regimes of Russia or North Korea or the USA. But we still have a ways to go, and believe it or not, your patience at the local library is actually crucially important in setting an example of compassion and inclusion.

By all means, politely consult with staff about your entitlement to scan and print in a timely manner as per the sign posted by the computers.

But try not to think of people who look (and yes, smell) different from you as an entity that can be labelled and corralled in a separate space simply because you think what you’re doing is more important than what they’re doing.

We all need to try harder to make space for one another. I promise you, only good can come of it.

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