A request by the Portland Public Library to allow security guards to ban unruly patrons without calling police is drawing a skeptical response from some city councilors and raising concerns among advocates for the homeless.

The library is asking the City Council to designate the three private security guards who work at the Monument Square main branch as “constables” so they can hand out criminal trespass orders or warnings. As constables, guards would not have the authority to make arrests; Portland police would review the trespass warnings. But anyone who returns to the library after getting a trespass warning could be arrested by police.

A city memo to councilors endorsing the change cites “concerns regarding increasing traffic of individuals who are no longer welcome in the library.”

Stephen Podgajny, the library’s executive director, said having constable status would not change how the library responds to disruptive behavior. In most cases, he said, library staff resolve situations without asking police to issue trespass notices.

Constables would simply be authorized to hand out the warnings themselves in situations – which Podgajny estimated occur about once a week – that can’t be resolved through “conversation and dialogue.” He listed alcohol and drug use as frequent violations.

“This was, we thought, something helpful to the police and to the overall deployment of public resources,” Podgajny said Friday. “It doesn’t change anything for us. It is efficient and something we think can be helpful.”

The city has granted constable status to park rangers, and to guards or other employees at the Portland Housing Authority and the Portland International Jetport.

The library’s request did not sit well with some city councilors, however. They postponed a vote on the issue until at least Nov. 17.

“The process for banning someone from using the public library should be pretty difficult,” Councilor Jill Duson said when the issue was brought to the council last Monday. “I think there are some First Amendment issues going on here that we are not seeing.”

The impact of the library’s request on Portland’s homeless community was mentioned only in passing, but that concern was an undertone of Monday’s debate.

Many urban libraries offer a safe refuge for people with nowhere else go to, especially during cold or stormy weather. Public libraries nationwide are struggling to balance their missions to serve everyone in the community – regardless of their socioeconomic status – with pressures from patrons who are uncomfortable in the presence of homeless people.

Cities’ responses vary widely. Some big-city libraries, such as those in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., now offer social services along with books and DVDs. Other communities have passed nuisance ordinances, only to see them overturned in court as discriminatory.

Podgajny stressed that the Portland library’s “rules of conduct” – banning obscene language and disruption of others, as well as smoking, sleeping and “improper use of restrooms” – are clearly posted and apply to everyone equally. Asked how many of the criminal trespassing orders are given to homeless individuals, Podgajny responded that he doesn’t know and that the library does not “target” anyone.

“We have no idea when you’re homeless,” he said. “We don’t care if you have a suit and tie on. … It is all behavior-based.”

Judy Newell, a former patron who said she was banned from the library for a period of time after being falsely accused of drinking in the bathroom, expressed concern about any effort that could be seen as targeting the homeless.

She said she has not been back to the library – even though the ban has ended – because she believes she was treated unfairly.

“It’s a warm place to go. You can use the bathroom and you can take out books, which is a positive thing and gives your mind something to do,” said Newell, who works as an advocate for Homeless Voices for Justice. “What do we expect people to do? We want people to help themselves. The library is a good place to go.”

Amy Gallant, advocacy coordinator at the nonprofit Preble Street, which provides services to the city’s homeless, said the constable request was “worrisome.” She said police officers are better trained to handle potential trespassing cases, and they have oversight from Portland Police Chief Michael Sauschuck, whom Gallant praised for his work with the homeless population.

“Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice have always had a great relationship with the Portland Public Library and we have always been able to mitigate any issues,” Gallant said. “The library is so important. It is such a valuable resource to our community and I would hate to see this change be a barrier to accessing the library.”

Podgajny said the library remains one of the homeless community’s strongest advocates, and that having constable status would “absolutely not” result in more trespass citations for any group. He said the guards would also receive additional training, but the first priority will still be conversation, not citations.

“Our whole (focus) is to have a safe and welcoming environment, and we are serious about that,” Podgajny said. “But sometimes you need tools … when you can’t resolve a situation with conversation and dialogue.”

Statistics for criminal trespass warnings were not immediately available Friday. However, Portland police made more than 1,200 arrests for criminal trespassing between January 2009 and September 2013. Only a handful were listed as taking place at the Monument Square library.

Although he did not have statistics at hand, Sauschuck told councilors that police are called to the library “on a regular basis.”

Sauschuck worked with Preble Street and Homeless Voices for Justice to create an appeals process for those banned from the library or other public spaces. Gallant said the process, as well as vetting by the city’s former neighborhood prosecutor, Trish McCallister, have worked well.

Councilor Ed Suslovic, who serves on the library’s board of trustees, supports the constable request to issue bans or warnings, without calling police, to anyone who is behaving in a threatening or improper way.

“It really is seen as a last resort,” Suslovic said.