October 25th, 2017

Libraries and the Homeless

As a trustee of a rural library system, homeless people in libraries is a problem I think about frequently and I can’t say I have anywhere near a complete answer.

Please note that I write here as an individual, not for the board of which I am a member nor for the library itself.

My thoughts go to first principles. Why does a community have public libraries? What good do libraries do the community? How do homeless people fit into the bigger picture of libraries?

The public library as free entertainment

What is the role of the contemporary public library? Free public entertainment? Public libraries certainly do that; the library circulates a lot of fiction, entertaining non-fiction, music, and videos. However, a library also has more serious roles.

Source of useful information

When I wander the library system’s reading rooms, I see most seats taken by students young and old in serious study. Some use the library as a study hall for their high school, college, and other classes. Many use the library’s reference works, which range from books on theology and philosophy to tax manuals and instructions for overhauling farm equipment. I once noticed a person taking notes on pickling cabbage. Yet others are using library computers and network connections. Utilitarian non-fiction is a big part of the library’s circulation. Acquisitions librarians say they can’t order enough cookbooks or books on managing small farms to meet patron’s requests.

Public libraries and education

Well, then, is the purpose of the public library to provide access to useful information? Certainly, but it goes beyond that. Our system has agreements with school districts in our county to provide services directly in the schools. The library system can provide the schools with a wider range of books and other materials than each school district can offer individually. The system’s collection is a public resource that is shared by both schools and the general public. In addition, the system has highly trained and specialized youth and children’s librarians who help teachers with class room projects and offer programs used by home schoolers and private schools.

Community anchors

Often, I hear of public libraries as “community anchors.” Our county’s branches are certainly community gathering places where citizens meet and exchange ideas. Each branch hosts at least one monthly book club. Branches have genealogy, quilting, and writer’s groups. They support the county literacy council in offering individual and group literacy classes and English as a second language classes. They provide archives for artifacts of local history such as old newspapers, letters, and photographs and they help connect people with local history experts and other resources.

The problem of the homeless

Are homeless people a problem? Yes. Our rural system does not struggle as much as urban libraries, but every month yields a handful of incidents that are related to homeless issues. The homeless can be loud, smelly, harassing, and scary. They have been known to use library facilities to view pornography. Staff have found drug paraphernalia. Not just for the homeless, and not an issue yet, but if the opioid crisis continues, I foresee a day when the library starts stocking and training staff to administer Narcan nasal spray. However, to add perspective, I have noticed more gripes from library staff over parents who drop off unsupervised children and treat the library as a free daycare center than I hear about homeless problems.

How we deal with the homeless

The problem is real. A basic tenet of our library policies is that any activity or person interfering with other patrons’ legitimate use of library services will be stopped. That stricture binds in every direction. Homeless persons have as much right to library services as the most affluent contributor to the library foundation. When any person, homeless or not, raises a ruckus— if only by smelling bad, sleeping in a needed chair, or other disruptive conduct— the library staff is trained to take steps, all the way up to calling the police and having the miscreant forcibly ejected and banned from the premises. Their training is to focus on the disruption, not who is disrupting. I have not experienced it, but I believe (and hope) the staff would “trespass” even a library trustee who made trouble in a branch.

As an aside, in keeping with modern library best practices, conversation that does not bother other patrons is not banned. The staff tries to keep teenagers herded together in areas that do not bother the rest of the folks, but non-disruptive talking, warbling, singing, hijinks, and other furfural are all tolerated if not encouraged.

Are these policies enough? No. I repeat, I speak for myself, but the library’s role is to provide services; community anchorage is an important element in those services. Homeless members of the community are still community members and the library anchors them as well as everyone else. By providing promoting useful knowledge and information, the library is contributing to the general prosperity of our county and helping our residents to take advantage of opportunities as they arise. By contributing to the quality of our school system and giving our citizens materials and places for study, the library also contributes to the health of our community. This helps decrease the incidence of homelessness and aids those already homeless in their efforts to surmount their plight. At present, our library doesn’t have any specific programs for homeless, although homeless can and do avail themselves of literacy classes and other self-help programs.

Homelessness probably cannot ever be completely solved. The poor will always be with us, if only because the most prosperous community will always have a least prosperous member. The social service agencies are the vanguard against homelessness, but public libraries can contribute opportunities for every community member to advance in the struggle to thrive and prosper.

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