Homeless People in Libraries

Good morning from the blogger who brought you such hard-hitting posts as “Should I Have Bangs?” and “ME LOVE SHOPPING”!

(Just kidding, “ME LOVE SHOPPING” is an as-yet-unwritten blog post, but this unnecessarily winter-y winter is killing my intellect and it’s only a matter of time before I sink to these depths. I signed in here after being away for a while [“away” = “watching Internet television and napping”], and was mortified that the message I’d left for the world to find was about bangs. I mean, what if I’d DIED? What if I’d died in some interesting, tragic way and CNN scouted out this blog and slathered a screenshot of my bangs post all over the TV?! What would the community think?) </prolonged parenthetical aside>

So, a few months ago I got this job as a Reference Manager at one of the library branches in a slightly sketchier part of my hometown — you know, the part that you would call a ghetto if ghettos existed in such mid-sized, white-bread-n-Jesus Midwest towns such as mine. I’ve since transformed from a wimpy suburban librarian who actually, like, helps people find books to read into one who regularly kicks violent drunks off the premises, dabbles in pee and other bodily functions that end up in places they were never meant to be, and once fished two used tampons out of the men’s toilet with a bookend. AND helps people find books to read!
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In short, I’ve become (completely against my will and natural inclination) somewhat of a badass, Dear Reader.

Since October, when the train dropped me off in front of this branch, fresh-faced and innocent and full of all sorts of romantic notions about what a public librarian could be, my eyes have been opened to societal problems that I knew, intellectually, existed, but hadn’t ever experienced in a direct, un-ignorable way.

I.e., homelessness. 

My thoughts on homelessness can be organized thusly:

1. It is a horrible, degrading problem that is not being adequately addressed by the government (OKAY THANKS REAGAN) or society in general.
2. The vast majority of homeless people are untreated, undertreated, or mistreated mentally ill and we have failed them.
3. Public libraries are disproportionately picking up the slack of sheltering and assisting the homeless, a task that, though worthy, we have neither the funds nor the staffing to do. 

Every day, my small staff and I play social worker, police officer, and therapist to anywhere from 15-40 homeless citizens. So you can understand why it’s occupied my brain these last three months. Sometimes I’ll wake with a start, sit bolt upright, and shout to the empty bedroom, “Egads, the HOMELESS! What do we do about the homeless?!”

I’ve been doing research to see how other libraries handle their homeless demographic, and considering it’s such a big issue for so many librarians, there doesn’t seem to be a lot of practical advice out there. Opinions that do exist seem to fall on the extremes:

1) the people who believe libraries should accept their new role in society and install showers and social workers and lift any rules that might discourage homeless people from using the building as a day shelter

or

2) the people who get angry at the idea of homeless people using the library at all, and feel we should crack down on it by creating rules and conditions that specifically prevent homeless patrons from hanging around and sullying the average upstanding citizen’s Janet Evanovich reading experience.  

My opinion falls somewhere in the middle. There has to be a way that libraries can help and welcome all sorts of people without scaring traditional library users away. 

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credit: Matthew Thorsen, photo from Fletcher Free Library in VT

Anyway…this is all to say that I think I’m going to start a library blog so I can think out loud about this stuff without annoying my regular readers, i.e. the people who just want to read about my lifelong struggle with what shall henceforth be referred to as “The Bangs Dilemma.” 

 

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2 thoughts on “Homeless People in Libraries

  1. I think libraries that have big issues with homeless people should designate a meeting room for their use. If it is obvious that someone is homeless (like when they are found dozing on the premises) security could direct them to the room. That space could also be used for classes and informational seminars that will help homeless people find shelter and work.

    • Thanks for noticing me and commenting. Sometimes I feel like I’m blogging into the void. ;)

      At my library, we do uphold the basic rules (no sleeping, no drinking, etc.) and warn or kick out anyone who’s breaking them, but the problem, and the thing librarians are always fretting about, is the gray areas. If a sweet, elderly homeless man is reading the paper and muttering gently to himself, do you tell him to stop? If a pregnant homeless woman comes in smelling like she hasn’t showered in weeks, do you kick her out into the subzero weather? It gets complicated. And you can’t go by if it’s “obvious someone is homeless,” because there isn’t necessarily an “obvious homeless” look.
      We’ve considered opening up one of the big community rooms during peak times for homeless patrons (and others, if they want) to use, but then you open a whole other can of worms: we don’t have the staff to supervise this room, and if left unsupervised, people do drugs, get in fights, etc.

      It’s a complicated issue, unfortunately. Do you work in libraries?

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