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How Libraries are Helping the Unhoused

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Jean Kuo Lee

Staff Writer

Jean Kuo Lee is a writer from California with a B.A. in English from UCLA, a former career in interior design, and a current calling to homeschool her children. She writes for parents and kids on several blogs with publications forthcoming. To contact her or to see more of her work, visit Twitter: @JeanKuoLee

Libraries across the nation are finding themselves increasingly on the frontlines of the homelessness crisis. This is unsurprising given the growing population of unhoused people in the U.S. A new report from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development revealed that homelessness grew by 2% in 2020, increasing the unhoused population to 580,466. This is a staggering figure when you realize that the number of Americans experiencing homelessness right now is equal roughly to the population of Baltimore.

According to Statista, 25% of this population live in two cities: New York and Los Angeles. The rest are scattered over 50 of the biggest cities, the third largest group in Seattle, with San Jose, Santa Clara, Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco coming next in line for cities with the largest number of people experiencing homelessness in 2020. It’s a sad look at how urban populations are struggling with poverty and housing insecurity.

Why Libraries Are on the Front Lines of the Homelessness Crisis

Patrons, regardless of their housing status, have always found the library to be a welcoming place. It can provide an air-conditioned space on a hot day, warmth in the wintertime, public restrooms for all, free internet access, places for quiet study, and spots to hang out with friends. The library is a free resource stocked with books, magazines, and newspapers for afternoons of reading or research. It is also a place full of wholesome programs that serve the community’s various interests, from educational programming in the children’s library to technology programming for adults. It is not hard to imagine why anybody would be drawn to the library.

While 61% of unhoused people spend the night in sheltered accommodation, many shelters do not provide daytime accommodation. In many cases, the library becomes the only welcoming and free place for people experiencing homelessness to spend the day. For those “sleeping rough,” without shelter for the night, the library remains the only humanizing place left where they can experience some respite from their hardships. There they are also able to connect with resources and information to lift them out of their situation.

The American Library Association (ALA) states that people experiencing poverty or homelessness constitute a significant portion of users in many libraries today. Jo Giudice, Director of Dallas Public Library, estimates that 40% of downtown Dallas’s central library customers are experiencing some level of homelessness. Each library will vary with the numbers, but the fact remains that as the homeless population grows, libraries face increasing demand to meet the needs of this group.

The Unique Role of Libraries in Helping the Unhoused

Because the library is a place of free access for all persons, regardless of class, housing, or social status, it remains one of the most democratic places in America. When asked in a recorded interview at the Dallas Public Library why it’s important for libraries to engage the unhoused, Guidice answered: “They are our customers, too. Libraries are free and open access to all customers [and] that’s what the library is about: it’s a place that people come for information.”

The ALA has supported equal access for decades. In 1990, it adopted a “Poor People’s Policy” underscoring the importance of the library’s role in “enabling poor people to participate in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.” The policy recognizes the challenges that low-income patrons face, including “illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination.” The policy does not mention additional factors like mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse, and other social challenges which often complicate homelessness. But still, the ALA continues to raise awareness and promote their policy of library services for the poor. It recommends implementing over a dozen strategies to help serve unhoused patrons. For example, it promotes the removal of overdue fees since they can become barriers to service. It promotes the robust funding of programs to serve low-income patrons and the training of staff to serve this group.

How Libraries Are Helping the Unhoused

Libraries alone cannot solve homelessness, but they are certainly taking their important role in stride. Sherri Diaz, the lead for L.A. County’s Homeless Initiative, says, “Library staff have always existed to direct the public toward information and resources. They continue to provide this service to all patrons, so this is not a new endeavor. The nature of the information and resources provided may be more social-needs focused now than in decades previous.”

Indeed, libraries are putting together resource events with helpful information like where to get housing assistance and food. Pre-pandemic, L.A. County held monthly outreach events at libraries with the greatest need. These events pulled together the Department of Mental Health, Public Social Services, Public Health, and housing service providers in one spot to help connect people with the resources they might otherwise be at a loss to find. Danville Public Library in Illinois has done something similar in Project Uplift, an event designed to connect home insecure people and families with resources from the community, such as meals from the local community college’s culinary department or showers and laundry facilities provided by local groups.

Some libraries are training their staff as part of their effort to engage the homeless. At McCormick Library in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, staff are trained in crisis intervention, mental health, and drug and alcohol abuse. They employ an empathy-based approach by Ryan Dowd, author of The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness. Dowd, who has extensive experience as a Chicago homeless shelter director, emphasizes de-escalation techniques like using the right body language and tone of voice to show respect and ensure cooperation.

This type of training can go hand-in-hand with efforts to get to know patrons. “Once you get to know a person’s name and their story, they are much more likely to feel welcomed and behavior issues decline. Respect goes a long way with a population that is often scorned,” says Guidice of the Dallas Public Library.

“Libraries must invest in serving this population to do it well,” she says. As for what type of investment, that is largely left up to each library and the needs of their customers. For overwhelmed and underprepared staff, some are electing to hire a full-time social worker to fill in the gaps. This seems like a sensible approach because degrees in library science typically do not cover coursework in social work or how to address patrons facing mental health challenges. Pikes Peak Library District has done exactly that by hiring a social worker for the Penrose Library in downtown Colorado Springs. This social worker is there five days a week, walking around getting to know patrons, answering questions, and helping people with practical needs from signing up for GED classes at the library to finding housing for the night. The Boston Public Library also found that hiring an outreach manager was the first step in the right direction for them. Their outreach manager, fully trained as a social worker, provides assessments and intensive case management services.

Library budgets must support these kinds of endeavors to make it work. The Dallas Public Library receives funding from a Special Projects grant by the Texas State Library and Archives Commission and the Institute of Museum and Library Services. They also get support from their nonprofit, the Friends of the Dallas Public Library. As a result, their library is able to offer an excellent homeless engagement program providing a one-on-one help desk for patrons, answering questions on how to create a resume or find a job, where to find a place to stay that night or a meal to eat. They offer game day, movies, and music lessons to give their patrons “an outlet to express themselves and have a bit of ‘normal’ in an often unsettled situation,” says Guidice. Such programs offer patrons a reprieve from homelessness. In an interview of unhoused patrons conducted by the Dallas Public Library, patron Eddie Jimmerson, Jr. said, “This library has reached out. They’ve come out with programs to engage people in many areas. Music, art, science, math. It’s an oasis of activities.” Speaking about the Help Desk, patron Daryl Monmoouth said that it really helped him a lot: “If it wasn’t like that with the one-on-one, I would probably have still been a little lost. It means a lot to me. That they had the time for that.”

Such programs are made possible through generous funding, but it also takes a lot of heart and personal commitment on the part of the staff. Even though the Dallas Public Library also has a social worker on staff, Guidice and her staff have a strong sense of mission to help. They began their homeless engagement program with a Coffee and Conversation program to find out what their unhoused patrons wanted to do while visiting the library. “We found when we assumed what our neighbors experiencing homelessness wanted or needed from us, we were often wrong,” Guidice told me. She still encourages staff to attend Coffee and Conversation to keep dialogue and mutual respect strong. They have even begun a podcast called Street View to give their patrons a platform to express themselves, “sometimes just to tell the story of how they ended up on the streets,” says Guidice. “Giving a voice to the unheard and often overlooked was our goal.”

This sense of mission and personal investment may make all the difference in cutting through red tape and helping vulnerable people connect with the resources they need. It can also fill gaps that will inevitably occur with major disruptions in public services. That’s exactly what happened during the library closures of the past two years during the COVID pandemic. Some libraries, such as the L.A. County system, have only recently opened up again for in-person services. They haven’t yet reinstated their indoor resource events for people experiencing homelessness. That means that in the city with the second highest level of homelessness in the nation, people experiencing homelessness in Los Angeles lost a major resource during the pandemic. Contrast that with what the Dallas Public Library was able to provide during those uncertain times. They brought in portable toilets for their patrons living in the front plaza outside. They also arranged for breakfast and lunch to be provided by a nearby church and even had staff sewing hundreds of masks for their unhoused population. It really does take a village of caring people, through public and private endeavors, to make a healthy community.

Whatever the level of engagement with the unhoused that each library is capable of, however they are extending their reach at the moment, it is clear that libraries play a huge role in changing the lives of unhoused Americans. As one of the most democratic institutions in the country, may it continue its mission to provide information and resources to all persons, even if the nature of the information and resources are changing.