About 1,500 people visit the downtown Vancouver Community Library every day. There’s typically people working, reading or simply resting in the chairs lining the windows of the first-floor atrium, or at one of the bistro tables in front of Thatcher’s Coffee.
Entering the library, on any given day, you might notice one of those tables covered in a purple velvet cloth belonging to Mandi Vee. The velvet prevents Vee from losing beads and scratching the table while she’s working on a piece of jewelry. She stores supplies in containers and trays; plastic bags are filled with baubles, crystals, shells, stones and other doodads, some that she’s culled from thrift stores, flea markets and friends.
“It’s nice to have such an open space down here because you don’t feel so cloistered,” said Vee, 45.
There’s not enough room to make jewelry in the broken-down van where she sleeps each night with her husband, K.C. Vee. At the library, she can spread out a bit, get something to drink and charge her cellphone. The light coming in through the windows makes it easier to see and manipulate tiny beads.
“You just forget yourself for a few minutes,” she said. “When I get mad, I work. When I get sad, I work.”
Vee said she’s long struggled to hold down a regular job; her part-time job at Michaels craft store in Jantzen Beach is her longest stint yet. She’s been homeless off and on for most of her adult life in Portland, Seattle and New Orleans, but Vancouver is home. While car-camping these last couple of years, the library has been a constant, Vee said. She estimates she’s there between three and 30 hours every week.
“We have always been very open to offering a home to homeless people during the daytime. That has not changed,” said library director Jackie Spurlock.
What has changed, she said, is the number of homeless people has gone up, and people have noticed that increase. The recently-opened women’s shelter a few blocks away and the new day shelter at Friends of the Carpenter in Fruit Valley are signs that there’s a growing demand for safe spaces for the homeless.
The downtown library is a safe, dry, clean place to be where people can stay warm in the winter and cool in the summer, Spurlock said. It’s open every day, unlike other libraries in the district.
“We’re not really a social service agency, we’re just a public entity,” said Ruth Shafer, program services manager at the library. “We’re trying to do what we can to best serve the homeless community and maintain an open and welcoming atmosphere.”
Art show in the works
Shafer and Vee often talk in the library, bouncing around ideas for library classes and programs.
“Quite honestly, without the library and Miss Ruth, I would have done something stupid by now,” Vee said.
They met after Vee sent in a letter, suggesting the library host an art gallery featuring the works of homeless artists. The two are trying to get more momentum around the idea and are accepting submissions from anybody who’s homeless or has experienced homelessness.
“A lot of people see the homeless as lazy, addicted bums, and I want to change that perception,” Vee said. “Some of us are more than willing to prove we want to work.”
The artwork doesn’t have to be about being homeless, though Shafer imagines that might be a natural focus for somebody in the throes of homelessness.
“We don’t mind edgy, but it’s got to be family friendly,” she said. “That doesn’t mean we don’t want hard issues.”
The project ties into the library’s overall goal of having more art, Spurlock said. While the First Friday art show has been happening since the library started, people have told library staff that they want to see more art, more often.
“We are looking for more kinds of grassroots generated art exhibits,” she said.
While there’s typically requirements for artwork displayed in the library, many of the requirements would be waved for this particular exhibit. The artwork doesn’t have to be framed, for instance, and the deadline is open for now. Normally, artists can’t store their works at the library, but Shafer is storing pieces in her office.
More art is needed before it all can be displayed as a collection. Artwork can be dropped off at the library at 901 C St. during library hours, which are 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday through Sunday. The pieces will be returned after the exhibit, which doesn’t have a set date yet.
Vee has created several pieces for the gallery. She’s layered necklaces of different lengths onto one display bust, along with a hair pin that was inspired by a bracelet she saw in a library book. Another piece is a black beaded bracelet made on a weaving loom that reads: “Being homeless should not be a crime.”
‘Good at creating’
A couple decades ago, when Vee first got together with her husband, a friend let her borrow a loom kit. With it, she made a Native American beaded bracelet that she gave to her husband for his birthday. They were homeless then, too, and went to get food at a bar, where a man offered $45 for the bracelet.
“We were on our last $10 for food,” Vee said.
The sale made her wonder what she could accomplish with more supplies and more practice.
“I’m good at creating. That’s what I do,” she said. “If I could make a real job out of it, I would love it.”
In the past, Vee’s used her jewelry to trade for food or art supplies. Besides several jewelry-making techniques, Vee said she also knows how to crochet, finger knit, arm knit, and draw with henna and facepaint. This year she’s selling her wares at the Salmon Creek Farmers’ Market and would like to someday be a street vendor in downtown Vancouver.
To get ideas, she peruses books on beading on the library’s fourth floor and regularly looks at magazines, such as “Bead & Button” and “Bead Style.”
When asked how she became homeless, Vee said: “It’s a combination of missed opportunities, poor choices, outside influences and, unfortunately, sometimes bad things happen to good people.” She said she and her husband were priced out of their last apartment on Fourth Plain Boulevard. Vee has had a lot of turmoil in her life, including not having custody of her children.
“But, she’s always found the library,” Shafer said.
“Be thankful you’re not going through this. To be honest, I think a lot of people can’t handle being homeless,” Vee said. “When you’re homeless you learn to adapt at a moment’s notice if you have to.”
When Vee works at the library, people sometimes ask her if she teaches classes or sells her stuff. There’s a home-schooled girl who occasionally sits and makes jewelry with her.
“The library’s a great place for all kinds of knowledge,” Vee said as she sat in the library on Wednesday, letting a henna tattoo dry on her hand in the sun.