What About Homeless People in the Library?

Photo from Don Fulano

Photo from Don Fulano

I think everyone can agree that in a perfect world, we would all have cosy little homes and no mental illness, addiction, or other life issues to deal with. That would be pretty great, but we are a long way away from that kind of Utopia.

This is what I know: libraries are magical places where everyone is welcome. Libraries, for many people, are a haven. A warm place away from harm. A place to sleep. To read. And in best case scenarios, the library is a place where people can apply for jobs or find information about affordable housing. But libraries are not actually homeless shelters – right? Should they be? Could they be? And why do they get treated as such?

A library in San Francisco has taken a bold step by including a social worker in their ranks. I think this makes a lot of sense – but does it send the wrong message? Or does it address a need? In general, I support helping people whenever possible. I think the homeless have every right to spend time in the library. But I feel for the patrons that are put off by their presence:

I dont have anything against homeless people. But I have a lot against rancid smelling people, the odor of booze, weed and cigaretts. Good luck trying to find a place to study that doesn’t include at least two of those odors, I sure couldn’t.  I would say the patrons consist of about half homeless people. If any homeless library patrons happen to be reading this, I want to tell you I am happy to see some of you being productive with your day. But for goodness sakes, wash your disgusting selves.
An otherwise great Facility with anything you would need for extended hours of research or study. Or a place for watching dvds to break up a day of harassing the public. (Quotation from here.)

For institutions that are constantly required to prove their worth, public opinion matters.

Perhaps a library staff with more diverse backgrounds will serve as a new model, one that can help ALL library patrons with their varied needs. Maybe we can raise our baseline expectations and do more than tolerate the full spectrum of people that enter our realm – maybe we can really help them by providing information of the most useful sort. Information that gets them off the streets, or at the least, finds them a place to bathe.

The photo for this post was a very conscious selection. It was taken by an educated young man who sought relief from the cold:

When I took this shot, I was homeless, living out of my car in parking lots on campus and around town. It was a very cold winter. Sometimes my feet would get so cold that it would cause me to wake up in the middle of the night. The library was a nice place warm place where I could sit around with electricity and wifi and dread going back out to my cold car. This was about 7 weeks after I graduated with my B.A.

The photo is very aptly entitled Labyrinth: “A complicated irregular network of passages or paths in which it is difficult to find one’s way” (Google definition). This issue is going to take us in many directions, and some will be dead ends. But eventually, with enough perseverance, I am confident that we will be able to guide people out of the maze.

I hope that employing social workers in our libraries is a step in the right direction. What do you think?


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