I’m trying to work out some of my thoughts about library services for homeless people. I talked a little bit about them here, and here are some more ramblings and mutterings.
Of course, the library isn’t just for poor people. But poor people benefit tremendously from the library.
Homeless people specifically benefit both in the Victorian-esque sense of being “improved” (e.g. increased literacy, or knowledge) and in the more modern sense of improved quality of life – from the basic “warm place to sit” to diversion and learning via library materials to social connections, whether with other patrons, staff, or virtually, in using computer time to go on social media sites, or email, etc. From both a missionary and a compassionate viewpoint, libraries are good for homeless people.
Library funding comes largely from property taxes. Thus, homeless people are not the ones who pay for the library. And homeless people are frequently the losers when there is conflict between the way the homeless people use the library and the way that housed people use the library.
Homeless people are often “difficult patrons.” Libraries make attempts to manage conflict by writing policies. Sometimes these policies clearly target homeless people, even though they may not say so outright. For example, it is generally frowned upon to bring lots of possessions into the library (bag policies) or to bathe in library bathrooms (bathing policies).
Homeless people who are also mentally ill are particularly “difficult patrons.” Not just for librarians, but for other patrons who may also end up interacting with them. I wrote a bit about helping people that you don’t really want to help here and about needy patrons here.
This is a good read: http://publiclibrariesonline.org/2013/04/library-service-to-the-homeless/ There’s a sentence in there that reads:
Although, it is not the job of libraries to alleviate the issue of homelessness, many public libraries provide a refuge or sanctuary to those stricken by poverty.21
But I think maybe we should consider it our job. Not as in, “we should start replacing the stacks with cots,” but as in, “homeless people are a key patron group, let’s be better about understanding and providing services.”