[updated March 2018]
Public libraries are much more than places where an elderly woman, with horn-rimmed glasses and her hair in a bun, shushes you every time you even think about speaking (common misconception). Libraries are community and cultural centers where individuals gather to explore, interact, learn, and read.
Also, libraries are often havens for people with nowhere else to go. Public libraries can be sanctuaries for the homeless. Libraries are a safe place for them to use the computers, read, attend programs, learn, utilize library services, etc. (which are the same reasons everyone else visits the library). Libraries have a responsibility to serve the homeless that come through their doors and treat them like any other patron.
In fact, some public libraries now have social workers in their buildings who are there to help the homeless. Other libraries have even moved to be open 24 hours a day, but this trend has come with some debate.
Homelessness and libraries is even making its way to the big screen. The Public, written and directed by Emilio Estevez, is set in Cincinnati as a brutal cold front moves in, which then prompts a group of homeless patrons to refuse to leave the public library at closing time because they’ve learned the city’s shelters are all full. Check out the movie trailer here: https://youtu.be/HF2NOf3EkgE
According to the American Library Association’s (ALA) Services and Responsibilities of Libraries, ALA “promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America… Therefore 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 Federal definition of a chronically homeless person is “either (1) an unaccompanied homeless individual with a disabling condition who has been continuously homeless for a year or more, OR (2) an unaccompanied individual with a disabling condition who has had at least four episodes of homelessness in the past three years,” and homeless is defined as “a person sleeping in a place not meant for human habitation (e.g. living on the streets, for example) OR living in a homeless emergency shelter” (Defining Chronic Homelessness: A Technical Guide for HUD Programs).
So with all of that in mind, here are some great resources for libraries on providing services to homeless patrons:
- Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement
- Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force (Social Responsibilities Round Table of ALA)
- Poor and/or Homeless Library Patrons
- Homeless Information: North Dakota (U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development)
- Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness
- Resources on Libraries and Homelessness (WebJunction)
- Barrows, P.K. (2014). Serving the needs of homeless library patrons: Legal issues, ethical concerns, and practical approaches. SJSU SLIS Student Research Journal. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oBPSkm
- Debczak, M. (2016). This library provides social services to homeless patrons. mental_floss. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2FhTG3r
- Lynch, J. (2016). Spartanburg library, homeless patrons, and the golden rule. TechSoup for Libraries. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2zSqDx6
- Mars, A. (2013). Library service to the homeless. Public Libraries Online. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2oDv7ED
- Quinton, S. (2016). Enlisting public libraries to help fight homelessness. Pew Charitable Trusts. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/235JZLQ
- Ruhlmann, E. (2014). A home to the homeless: Libraries offer refuge and support to those in need and help foster a new community approach to homelessness. American Libraries. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2F85aHN
- Shaw, A. & Rosansky. (2016). Services for the homeless at libraries. ProQuest. Retrieved from http://bit.ly/2fWbZLA