The Information Policy Blog

The (unofficial) blog of the BCLA Information Policy Committee

Public Libraries and the Homeless

Public Libraries and the Homeless

by Kristy Brimacombe

This wiki is intended for information professionals working in a public institution, as well as library users seeking a better understanding of the issues homeless individuals face when attempting to access information and the considerations libraries must make when serving the entire community. The factors contributing to a person becoming homeless include, but are not limited to: mental and physical illness, domestic violence, addiction, lack of affordable housing and the loss of a job. A 2002 study found that veterans make up approximately 40% of the homeless adults in the United States.[1] “The homeless” are not a homogenous group; consequently, their information needs are diverse.

Public libraries are intended to serve the entire community and, as such, have the potential to make a difference in the lives of the poor and homeless by ensuring access to information in all of its forms; newspapers, fiction, non-fiction, the internet, workshops, and the like can all be of use. Unfortunately, many of these potential patrons come up against considerable barriers to library access. The library (or other patrons) may take issue with a homeless patron’s smell, appearance or belongings and create various policies in response. Additionally, some libraries may be hesitant to loan books to patrons without a fixed address. The ALA’s policy clearly states that these patrons should not be excluded from the public library.

How are public libraries dealing with the issue of homelessness in their communities? And what kind of policies and services can public libraries implement to assist poor and homeless patrons?

Contents

1 Official Policies
2 Information Poverty
3 Barriers to Use
3.1 An Uninviting Environment
3.2 Discrimination
3.3 No Library Card Without an Address
4 Recent Initiatives
4.1 Amended Borrowing Policies
4.2 Employing Formerly Homeless Persons
4.3 Professional Consultations
4.4 Community Partnerships
5 Conclusion
6 Footnotes
7 References

Official Policies

Public libraries are intended to serve the entire community, including the poor and the homeless. The American Library Association’s policy on services for the poor, Policy 61, states that the association “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.” [2]

The policy recognizes that there are a number of factors that should be recognized when considering services for the poor, “including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services.” [3] Poor members of society can face many barriers when trying to access the public library, such as the inability to obtain a library card, feeling unwelcome by staff and other patrons, an inability to pay fines, and a general prejudice towards the homeless as “problem patrons.”

The BCLA’s official statement regarding library access as a basic right states that:
Public libraries belong to their communities. As public institutions, they are funded from taxes and can thus ensure that a wide range of information, education and recreation resources are provided for all residents. Libraries that become dependent on user fees can feel pressured to cater to their users and not represent the needs of the greater community. These libraries would then cease to be “public.”…Library user fees disenfranchise and marginalize people who cannot afford to pay for information. [4]

As members of the community, the poor and the homeless have a legitimate right to utilize the library and its services. Likewise, the ALA considers it to be “crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.” [5] Public libraries are now tasked with balancing the needs of all patrons; just as they must encourage the poor to access library services, they cannot favour them over any other group of patrons.

Information Poverty

Information poverty refers to a lack of access to basic information needs, including information on housing (both emergency and long term), health issues, and legal rights; this is caused by individuals either not knowing where the information can be found or not having the tools to access the information. [6] Often, the economically poor are also considered to be information poor, as they are less likely to have a personal computer and internet connection, and therefore do not have the ease of access to information that others in the community may have; however, it is important to note that lack of internet access is just one component of information poverty. [7] In a 2003 study, Julie Hersberger found that homeless families often “did not view the Internet as a major source of needed information” [8] and were more likely to seek information from social contacts.

Additionally, those without internet access are at a significant disadvantage, as today’s job searches rely heavily on the internet. Public libraries can serve as a valuable resource to job seekers, because of both internet access and materials or workshops on resumes and cover letters. [9]

Barriers to Use

An Uninviting Environment

The poor and homeless can be made to feel unwelcome in what should be a public space by both the staff and fellow patrons. According to Lan Shen, “few libraries, if any, have written policies that clearly safeguard the interests and rights of the homeless.” [10] In fact, seemingly harmless regulations can give libraries the justification to evict homeless patrons based on their smell, appearance or belongings, or to label them—and treat them as—“problem patrons.” A 2005 report by the ALA states that libraries should recognize that “poor hygiene and homelessness are conditions of extreme poverty, not types of behaviour”[11]; however, this is not always seen in practice. Some libraries have introduced specific odor or hygiene policies meant to “teach the homeless, children -and others how to behave,” however these policies “are at best misguided and, at worst, contribute to the criminalizarion of poor people.” [12]

Recent policies against bringing items such as bedrolls into the library serve to prohibit the homeless population from visiting the library. This also has the unintended side effect of charging librarians with policing the library rather than providing information services. [13] Security guards employed at a library can actually serve as an ally for homeless patrons, as one library has found; their security guards know the homeless patrons by name and are familiar with each patron’s needs. [14] Another library sought to help with the problem of homelessness by converting a nearby building into a shelter, thereby eliminating the need for the homeless to sleep and bathe in the library. [15]

Linda Tashbook, a university librarian, reminds us that “there are lots of things that [patrons] might be, and lots of ways that we might describe [them], but as long as we dwell on those we are not paying attention to [their] information needs.”[16]

Discrimination

Unfortunately, there is much discrimination against those that can benefit greatly from public libraries, as “their free access to library service is often perceived to be infringing upon the rights of other patrons.” [17] A 2008 letter to the editor published by the Vancouver Sun exemplifies this discriminatory attitude; Dorian Rayn writes that “It is a sad time for all of us who loved everything the VPL offered to see this Vancouver icon reduced to a place where the unwashed and the unhinged openly imbibe pharmaceuticals, sleep off their intoxications, and have conversations with their shadows.” [18]

Libraries have a responsibility to balance the needs of the entire community. One librarian explains the situation as follows: “That’s the balance that you try to seek – trying not to lose anyone while providing service to everyone. You don’t want to come across as the bad guy.”[19] Lilienthal points out that this does not necessarily mean treating every patron equally, as it could “prevent helpful actions, including simple services such as merely listening to a homeless library user.” [20] Some libraries take their services into homeless shelters, hoping to create a positive relationship with this patron group. An example of this is the Live Oak Public Libraries in Georgia, which hosts story time for families in shelters around the city. [21]

No Library Card Without an Address

It can be a challenge for the homeless to obtain library cards, as libraries generally require the patron to have a fixed address and provide identification; all too often these policies tell the homeless that they are not welcome in the library.[22] Various libraries have created exceptions to this policy for their homeless patrons. Possible solutions include granting “temporary” membership, which limits the number of books that can be borrowed, accepting a letter from the shelter in lieu of an address and simply bypassing the address requirement.[23]

The ALA’s Policy 61 states that it is the responsibility of public libraries to “promote removal of all barriers to library and information services, particularly fees and overdue charges,” [24] although it is unclear if this is widely followed. Beth Lawry recounts an interaction with a homeless woman named Sylvia whose backpack, which contained medications, library books and her library card, was stolen. Her biggest concern was the loss of the library card; she worried that it would not be replaced and she would lose access until the stolen books were paid for. [25] Although the author sympathizes with this woman’s predicament, she also wonders how she would react if Sylvia were a patron in her library: would she strictly follow the library’s policies or would she make exceptions in order to allow library access to someone who so clearly relies on it? [26]

One argument made against allowing the homeless to check out materials is based on loss prevention. Some worry that these materials will be returned damaged or not at all. The Worcester Public Library stated in 2006 that they will allow homeless patrons to borrow materials; they plan to monitor returns and will work with other community agencies to investigate missing materials and fundraise to cover replacement materials, should they be necessary.[27] Willett and Broadley were told by some libraries that the benefits of borrowing books experienced by the homeless outweighs the potential loss of materials; in the case of the Worcester Public Library, if too many books were lost, this practice would no longer be considered sustainable.[28] [29]

Recent Initiatives

Amended Borrowing Policies

An increasing number of libraries are beginning to recognize the need for all patrons to be able to borrow books, regardless of their living situation; however, there are often limitations set for those without a fixed address. This is a step in the right direction, but still reflects inequality in information access policies. For example, the Greater Victoria Public Library system states on their website that “people in transition” who have “identification but no known or permanent address are eligible for limited borrowing privileges and Internet access.” [30] Of course, this still requires the patron to have some form of indentification.

Employing Formerly Homeless Persons

The public library can serve other needs of its homeless patrons. The library can be a comfortable place to relax inside and interact with others—and for some, an opportunity to bathe or wash clothing.[31] This use of the washrooms can make other patrons and library staff uncomfortable; some libraries have found creative and inexpensive solutions, using it as an opportunity to create an inclusive environment. A branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia hired people who were formerly homeless to act as bathroom attendants who would “report any illegal activity to library security, perform light cleaning, and serve as a friendly referral service to homeless people in need of outreach services.” [32] This allowed the library to address their patrons’ (both homeless and housed) needs without sacrificing one group for the other.

Professional Consultations

Professional services, such as legal and financial, can also be of use. “The homeless encounter the law in ways that are different from everyone else” [33] and therefore can have unique legal needs. Of course, librarians should not dispense legal advice, but they can assist the patron in locating relevant resources. The San Jose Public Library hosts a program called Lawyers in the Library in which lawyers provide twenty minute consultations with interested patrons.[34]

Community Partnerships

In 2009, the San Francisco Public Library hired Leah Esguerra in partnership with the Department of Health. [35] Esguerra works with a group of formerly homeless men and women to seek out poor and homeless people within the library. Together, they provide peer counselling and answer questions about shelters and other basic needs. Esguerra also “assesses users to determine their need for government assistance and treatment of health and mental problems,” promotes different workshops offered by the library, and assists library staff in answering tough questions from their homeless patrons. [36]

Other libraries have created book clubs, organized hair cuts and dental care, and matched homeless patrons with teens to allow them to get to know the patrons on a personal level. Of the book club created in Michigan’s Traverse Area District Library, Margaret Kelly says, “The participants were already library patrons. […] I wanted to know them as such, not this or that homeless person.” [37] These programs provide an opportunity for the library staff and outside organizations or businesses to both assist the patrons on an individual level and to put aside any preconceived notions they have about homeless patrons.

Conclusion

The group of people that make up “the homeless” have diverse backgrounds and needs. Many are “multi-crisis homeless,” meaning that their homelessness is the result of a string of unfortunate events, not just a singular issue. [38] Homelessness does not automatically denote joblessness; in fact, about one in four are employed. [39] It does not benefit the homeless or the larger community to make generalizations about who the homeless are. In addition, it is important to consider that homelessness is not a permanent state, but a situation that can be remedied with the right resources and support.

Public libraries throughout the United States and Canada have found creative ways to encourage library use by the homeless; however, discriminatory practices and attitudes continue to discourage their use of the library’s resources. While some members of the public may not welcome this group, access to information resources is essential for the poor; not only does access provide people with information that can directly benefit their lives, it also provides enjoyment and helps them to feel connected with the larger community. It is important for public libraries to have policies regarding the inclusion of these patrons, as well as to create initiatives that will foster an amicable relationship between the library and its poor or homeless users.

Footnotes

1.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? In The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
2.↑ Gieskes, L. (2009). ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61. Library Services for the Poor. In Progressive Librarian (32), pp. 82–87.
3.↑ Gieskes, L. (2009). ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61. Library Services for the Poor. In Progressive Librarian (32), pp. 82–87.
4.↑ British Columbia Library Association. Statement and guidelines on public library user fees. Last accessed March 28, 2012. http://www.bcla.bc.ca/page/public%20library%20user%20fees.aspx
5.↑ Gieskes, L. (2009). ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61. Library services for the poor. In Progressive Librarian (32), pp. 82–87.
6.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
7.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
8.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
9.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
10.↑ Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
11.↑ — (2005). Are public libraries criminalizing poor people? In Public Libraries 44 (3), p. 175.
12.↑ — (2005). Are public libraries criminalizing poor people? In Public Libraries 44 (3), p. 175.
13.↑ Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
14.↑ Burek Pierce, J. (2004) Finding an ethical balance. American Libraries 35(11) pp.61.
15.↑ Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
16.↑ Tashbook, L. (2009). Aiming high, reaching out and doing good: Helping homeless library patrons with legal information. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 38–45.
17.↑ Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
18.↑ Rayn, D. (2008). Library has turned into a shelter for the homeless. Vancouver Sun. Last accessed March 28, 2012. http://www.canada.com/vancouversun/news/letters/story.html?id=dc1d4300-7c8d-4b3f-a986-58a30d73e82e
19.↑ Burek Pierce, J. (2004) Finding an ethical balance. American Libraries 35(11) pp.61
20.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
21.↑ Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
22.↑ Willett, P. and Broadley, R. (2011). Effective public library outreach to homeless people. In Library Review 60 (8), pp. 658–670.
23.↑ Willett, P. and Broadley, R. (2011). Effective public library outreach to homeless people. In Library Review 60 (8), pp. 658–670.
24.↑ Gieskes, L. (2009). ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61. Library Services for the Poor. In Progressive Librarian (32), pp. 82–87.
25.↑ Lawry, B. A. (2002). The value of a library card to a homeless person. In Public Libraries 41 (4), pp. 200–201.
26.↑ Lawry, B. A. (2002). The value of a library card to a homeless person. In Public Libraries 41 (4), pp. 200–201.
27.↑ Associated Press (2006). Homeless advocates persist. In American Libraries, p. 17.
28.↑ Willett, P. and Broadley, R. (2011). Effective public library outreach to homeless people. In Library Review 60 (8), pp. 658–670.
29.↑ Associated Press (2006). Homeless advocates persist. In American Libraries, p. 17.
30.↑ Greater Victoria Public Library. (2011) Special Cards. Last accessed April 6, 2012. http://gvpl.ca/using-the-library/borrowing/special-cards/
31.↑ Price, L. (2009). The story of the H.O.M.E. Page Cafe. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 32–34.
32.↑ Price, L. (2009). The story of the H.O.M.E. Page Cafe. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 32–34.
33.↑ Tashbook, L. (2009). Aiming high, reaching out and doing good: Helping homeless library patrons with legal information. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 38–45.
34.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
35.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
36.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
37.↑ Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
38.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
39.↑ Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).

References

— (2005). Are public libraries criminalizing poor people? In Public Libraries 44 (3), p. 175.
Associated Press (2006). Homeless advocates persist. In American Libraries, p. 17.
Burek Pierce, J. (2004) Finding an ethical balance. American Libraries 35(11) pp.61.
Gieskes, L. (2009). ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61. Library Services for the Poor. In Progressive Librarian (32), pp. 82–87.
Hersberger, J. (2003). Are the economically poor information poor? Does the digital divide affect the homeless and access to information? In The Canadian Journal of Information and Library Science 27 (3).
Hersberger, J. (2005). The homeless and information needs and services. In Reference & User Services Quarterly 44 (3), pp. 199–202.
Lawry, B. A. (2002). The value of a library card to a homeless person. In Public Libraries 41 (4), pp. 200–201.
Lilienthal, S. (2011). The problem is not the homeless. In Library Journal 136 (11).
Price, L. (2009). The story of the H.O.M.E. Page Cafe. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 32–34.
Shen, L. (2002). The dilemma of urban library service for the homeless. In Current Studies in Librarianship 26 (1/2), pp. 77–83.
Tashbook, L. (2009). Aiming high, reaching out and doing good: Helping homeless library patrons with legal information. In Public Libraries 48 (1), pp. 38–45.
Willett, P. and Broadley, R. (2011). Effective public library outreach to homeless people. In Library Review 60 (8), pp. 658–670.

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