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Welcoming the Homeless into Libraries

Posted By Kim Leeder On December 1, 2010 @ 12:33 pm In Uncategorized | Comments Disabled

Martin Luther King Library

photo by Alex Barth on Flickr

I hope those reading this post had a warm, happy Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends. I spent most of last week in Florida at my parents’ “snowbird” house with my immediate family, all of us having traveled at least 1,200 miles to eat, drink, and laugh together by the pool. While there I spent my downtime reading a moving memoir about homelessness entitled Breakfast at Sally’s. The irony of reading such a book at Thanksgiving did not escape me, nor did the dramatic contrast between my comfortable lifestyle and that of former publishing mogul Richard LeMieux. LeMieux’s business collapsed in 2002 and left him homeless and clinically depressed, after which his wife left him and his adult children turned their backs. About to take his own life, he was stopped from jumping off a bridge only by the barking of his beloved dog.

Breakfast at Sally’s is about LeMieux’s struggles to survive and find new meaning in life, offering a unique if somewhat darker perspective on American culture. Throughout the author’s sad experience some bright points appear, however, including the many churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army (which the homeless dub “Sally’s”) that provide free meals, clothing, and a sense of community for those on the streets. The kindness of those who dedicate their time and energy to keeping these associations running is critical in keeping LeMieux and his fellows alive and fed.

Another bright point that appears early in the story is the public library, about which LeMieux says:

The library was another sanctuary for the homeless. There was always plenty for everyone, rich and poor. Those without a roof over their heads could escape with Wolfe, Kafka, or Robert Louis Stevenson and have shelter from the heat and the cold, the rain and the pain (31).

This passage, along with repeated references to the importance of books to various homeless characters in the story, gave me pause. The small city where I live, Boise, Idaho, may have lower rates of homelessness than larger metropolitan areas around the nation (12 people out of every 10,000 are homeless in Idaho, versus 22 nationally according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness), but even in my university library we see individuals on a regular basis who appear to fit the profile. Have I ever helped them, or has my library been doing anything to help? Not beyond the definitions of what we do for any other community user, and in fact perhaps less. We may watch them out of the corners of our eyes to make sure they don’t cause any trouble, and we tolerate their presence. If they have a photo identification card we’ll let them use a public computer for an hour, and if not they can have ten minutes or so at a quick-use machine. If no students complain, they can nap in one of our lounge chairs upstairs in a quiet corner. That’s not much, particularly when you consider the situation from LeMieux’s vantage point on the streets. The obstacles between his circumstances–with no address, phone number, or job references–and a rebuilt, stable life seemed insurmountable.

Of course libraries aren’t homeless shelters or counseling centers and homelessness is complicated problem that libraries alone don’t have the power to solve. The Madison, Wisconsin, Central Library is an example of the conflicts that can arise when a library is so popular with the homeless that other patrons object. On the one hand, the library is providing a positive experience for homeless individuals. Pat Schneider, author of the above-linked article from The Cap Times, writes:

Ask [the homeless] why they hang out at the library and they’ll talk about comfort. It’s warm. It’s dry. There are public restrooms. But the library offers much more. “They’ve got books and magazines and music. I love the library,” enthuses one young woman.

This echoes the sentiments expressed by LeMieux in Breakfast at Sally’s. On the other hand, a large population of homeless patrons can make others (justified or not) feel unsafe or uncomfortable walking in the building. Schneider continues:
[T]he crowd on the library patio turns off some, library officials admit. “I hear anecdotally of people saying they prefer to go to branches because they feel safer,” says Theodore “Tripp” Widder, president of the Madison Library Board.

Balancing the needs of varied library user groups is not easy, and it becomes especially difficult when there are deep-rooted prejudices against one particular group, like the homeless. Yet if we truly serve our communities, as any library open to the public inherently does, we would do well to reconsider our attitude and our services for the poor and the homeless. Think about the requirements for the basic services that most of us take for granted, such as requiring a home address or driver’s license to check out books or to access a computer. While such things sound simple, someone who has lost their home has often lost access to those basic privileges as well. This is not just a public library issue: it’s an issue for all libraries that are open to the public. If we serve the public, we serve the wide variety of people who make up the public, regardless of their address.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to some of the wonderful libraries that have met the call for help in their communities, and I’d like to share their stories from my research and reading on this topic. Perhaps their stories, like Breakfast at Sally’s, can inspire the rest of us to greater understanding of the plight of the homeless. Perhaps they can remind us of our ability–and responsibility–to work with local organizations to create programs and services to assist the needy in our own towns and cities.

ALA and Homelessness

In 1990 the American Library Association approved Policy #61, Library Services to the Poor. This policy was created based on the belief that “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.” The policy, overseen by ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, includes sixteen objectives to accomplish this goal, from promoting food drives to eliminating fees for those who can’t afford to pay them, as well as creating low-income programs and services.

The “Poor People’s Policy,” as Policy #61 is called, is a statement of belief and a list of general tenets that all libraries are encouraged to adopt, similar to the Library Bill of Rights. However, as Sanford Berman described in a 2006 article in Street Spirit, the Poor People’s Policy has not been accepted as widely as that older document. Berman’s observations on the tension between library ideals and reality are an insightful and passionate reflection of our profession’s unintentional hypocrisy. Library services, in general, serve the haves and exclude the have-nots, a circumstance he labels “classism.” Examples of classism include the small number of libraries carrying major serials on homeless issues; the fact that libraries in the lowest income areas are often open the fewest hours; and policies and laws banning “offensive body odor,” bathing, or sleeping (such as in San Luis Obispo and Houston). He ends with this plea:

If librarians and others can first recognize their own attitudinal hang-ups, understanding what makes them view welfare mothers and homeless people, for example, unfavorably, and ultimately grasping that poverty—not poor people—is the problem, that poverty can be reduced if not ended, and that the most vulnerable and dispossessed among us are citizens and neighbors who deserve compassion, support, and respect—if we can do these things in our heads and hearts, then there’s a real chance to overcome classism.

Perhaps the strongest response to the Poor People’s Policy has been within the Social Responsibilities Round Table, which created their Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force to advance the objectives of the policy. The Task Force expanded those objectives and provided more specific recommendations for libraries interested in improving their accessibility to all, while working on raising awareness and action. Still, one task force can’t do it alone. To make libraries more welcoming and supportive for the poor and the homeless, individual libraries need to adopt the Poor People’s Policy and take responsibility for those in need in their own communities.

A 2002 article by Lan Shen, “The Dilemma of Urban Library Service for the Homeless,” (Current Studies in Librarianship, v. 26 no. 1/2), breaks down existing library services for the homeless into three categories. The first is partnering with local government or nonprofit agencies to provide learning opportunities for the homeless, perhaps by providing lists of local resources or making meeting rooms available for support groups. The second category is bringing library programs or services out to homeless centers or shelters, such as storytimes for families. The third category is in-library programs and services like literacy programs, “camps” for homeless children, or referral services. Shen’s article is helpful as a starting point in beginning to think about some of the potential ways to serve the homeless in our communities. Some libraries are even finding ways to expand beyond those categories to provide out-of-the-box initiatives in their communities. The H.O.M.E. Page Café in Philadelphia is a prime example.

The H.O.M.E. Page Café

One of the most powerful initiatives in libraries to support the homeless is the H.O.M.E. Page Café at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This library coffee shop grew out of a partnership between the library and Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education), a local nonprofit working on homelessness and related issues. The two had initially collaborated to solve the library’s problem with their restrooms, which were popular with the homeless to the point of alienating other patrons. Project H.O.M.E. offered to fund a program in which formerly homeless individuals in supported housing were hired as restroom attendants to monitor the restrooms and keep them clean. The library watched their restroom problems dissolve, while needy individuals got back on track to supporting themselves. The program has been extremely successful and cemented the partnership between the two organizations (see “The Story of the H.O.M.E. Page Café” in Public Libraries Jan/Feb 2009, pp. 32-34).

When the Free Library of Philadelphia decided to create a coffee shop, Project H.O.M.E. proved to be an invaluable collaborator once again. They proposed a café whose primary purpose would be not revenue but job training for formerly homeless individuals living in supported housing. They obtained a grant, garnered equipment donations from Starbucks, and brought in a local bakery interested in supporting social causes. They hired employees, not based on their knowledge or experience, but their need and potential (there are a few examples in other fields, too, for instance Gould Farm in Massachusetts). The result of this partnership was a library café that helps the homeless get back on their feet while inspiring loyal patronage among socially aware customers. Through collaboration and creativity, the Free Library of Philadelphia and Project H.O.M.E. have built a model that could be constructively reproduced in cities across the nation. Hopefully, it will be.

Crossing Library Types to Serve the Homeless

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San José, California, combines the San José Public Library and the San José State University Library in one collaborative system to better serve both communities. And they do! In an article last year in The Reference Librarian, “Addressing the Needs of the Homeless: A San José Library Partnership Approach,” Lydia N. Collins, Francis Howard, and Angie Miraflor describe how the libraries joined together not only in a shared building, but also in a combined effort to bring services to the homeless in their community. They formed a task force to identify needs, priorities, and community partners, and began a concerted outreach initiative.

Like The Free Library of Philadelphia, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library partnered with local organizations in San José such as InnVision, which serves low-income people in the San José area. The library brought computer classes and storytimes to InnVision’s centers, and the two organizations plan to expand their joint offerings. Further, the library began to plan their own in-library programming to address the needs of homeless patrons, such as assistance with job applications, legal information, and English as a second language training. The library brings social workers and lawyers into the library to offer advice and guidance to the homeless during free sessions. And to top it all off, the library administration provided customer service training to librarians and staff to increase their sensitivity to homeless patrons. Collins et al report:

There are two on-going programs targeted specifically at the homeless: storytimes for families and computer classes. Both programs are conducted at homeless agencies and bring in 35 to 40 children and adults. There is also a weekly “Lawyers in the Library” program that offers free 20-minute legal consultations, and there is a continuous waiting list for this service (114).

While Collins et al. acknowledge that they need to assess current initiatives and seek new ways to support the homeless in their community, they are actively experimenting with a variety of approaches and adjusting their services and programs based on the feedback they receive. By building an environment of sensitivity and accommodation, they have embraced the Poor People’s Policy and are a model example of a multiple-library-type partnership created for the benefit of the homeless in their area. Although it is unusual for an academic and public library to share a space, that is not a barrier to cross-library collaboration on programs and other initiatives similar to those at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.

Conclusion

I certainly don’t have the answers to homelessness, but perhaps in the writing of this post I have uncovered a few answers to homelessness as it relates to libraries. The first and most obvious conclusion is that libraries that have “problems” with homeless patrons should seek out partners in the community to help them solve those problems in a way that will simultaneously assist the homeless population. No one wants to use the library restroom to bathe, nor is the library anyone’s first choice for napping. The initiatives described in this post—and I’m sure there are more that I haven’t uncovered—reveal that collaboration with organizations already working on homeless or low-income issues can often provide meaningful solutions that can even offer positive press for the library. Further, any library that serves the public would do well to adopt the Poor People’s Policy and consider new, collaborative ways to serve those in need in the local community instead of tossing them out the door.

Another conclusion we can extract from the stories provided here is the undeniable fact that libraries of any type can help homeless individuals rebuild their lives if we can eliminate classist attitudes and policies and stop judging people based on appearance (and aroma). Like the libraries described above, we can plan or host programming targeted to the needs of those on the streets. We can educate ourselves on local organizations and laws that the homeless should be aware of, and reach out to them with that information. These initiatives don’t have to be time-consuming for those of us already stretched thin; they may just require contacting local partners and offering space or other support.

Above all, it’s important for those of us working in libraries to keep in mind that, like it or not, libraries are a lifeline for those without homes. We provide safe spaces, a sense of community, and a means of communication. In Breakfast at Sally’s LeMieux describes the isolating effect of homelessness caused by living outside the daily bustle of work, home, and family. Libraries have the ability to create opportunities that empower people to reconnect with their world. As individuals we can help by putting aside our distractions, digging down into our humanity, and treating all our patrons with compassion, kindness, and generosity. It may not be in our job descriptions, but it is in our power to make a difference.

Suggestions for further reading:

Gehner, J. (2010). Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion. Public Library Quarterly, 29(1), 39-47. doi:10.1080/01616840903562976.

LeMieux, R. (2008). Breakfast at Sally’s: One Homeless Man’s Inspirational Journey. New York: Skyhorse Pub.

Tashbook, L. (2009). Aiming High, Reaching Out, and Doing Good: Helping Homeless Library Patrons with Legal Information. Public Libraries, 48(1), 38-45.

My thanks to Ellie Collier, Ellie Dworak, Emily Ford, and Amy Vecchione for offering valuable feedback on a draft of this post.

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