Give me your tired, your poor: A new role for public libraries

Public libraries and the homeless

3 minute read
Why do the homeless gravitate to libraries? Let's count the ways.
Why do the homeless gravitate to libraries? Let's count the ways.
Surrounded by his worldly possessions—sleeping bag and overflowing shopping cart— the tall, angular, scraggly-bearded homeless man sat in front of our local supermarket conducting a very loud conversation with himself about children being "hurt" and busily writing in a small note pad. Like his many mentally challenged homeless brothers and sisters, he was flying well under the current major social concern radar.

I stopped and wished him "Good morning." He looked up and abruptly ended his solo conversation and note taking. We held a pleasant, if brief, conversation about how cold the weather had turned. The last thing he said to me was, "I'm going to the library."

I didn't really think much about that comment until weeks later. I presumed he was just looking for a place to stay warm. But perhaps a broader perspective was in order.

Sociologists have lately been emphasizing the social importance of "third places"— that is, non-home, non-work locations where people gather and interact, like parks, coffee shops, or hair salons. Or libraries.

Homeless people gravitate to libraries because many other places that purportedly serve them— like police stations, mental health facilities, secluded areas or even busy streets— lack the attributes that tend to attract the homeless, like warmth, safety and quiet. How, then, might such places become more useful points of positive, community-affirming contact?

My soft-touch sister

My sister, a retired librarian in California, likes to remind me that some years ago, in a cost-cutting effort, the Public Library in San Jose was combined with the San Jose State University Library were combined. Well, sort of. The functions were combined within the same building, but the floors were divided into "Public" and "University." The differences between the floors were significant.

On the University floors, for example, apparently homeless patrons were not allowed to sleep. Those found asleep were rousted and asked to use the library as a library or move along.

The public floors, on the other hand, embraced what I might characterize as a "local option" approach: The ranking librarian on a given day would rely on personal judgment in the handling of homeless sleepers. If the homeless weren't bothering anyone else trying to use the library, they were allowed to sleep. After all, most local homeless shelters provided overnight accommodations but nothing during the day.

My sister had "regulars" who found her sympathetic and seemed to know when she was working. They also knew, for example, that she would try to help patrons find unmolested sleeping places if other staff woke them. In addition, she kept her own list of local homeless shelter services if they might be needed (or requested).

Sacramento's new policy

In Sacramento, where I live, library conditions (especially downtown) a few years ago resulted in rules limiting panhandling, harassment, sleeping, and even bad odor.

Recently, however, there has been shift in how the homeless (and near homeless) are viewed. Now the Sacramento Public Library has joined with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership to employ a part-time homeless outreach worker. The focus includes health (with an emphasis on drug and alcohol problems), mental health, employment and housing.

This is one of those counter-intuitive ideas that may just make sense.

Public libraries have always recognized their mission as "third places" where ordinary citizens can gather. Lately they've been responding to the digital age by shifting away from books to computer-based knowledge resources. Wouldn't this be a good time for libraries to justify their public service role by broadening their mission to address the needs of society's most marginal citizens?

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