Libraries across the US are increasingly on the frontlines of America’s homelessness crisis, especially during a winter marked by cold snaps and in the wake of the tailing off of the Covid-19 pandemic which has seen many public institutions reopen.
This month two Denver-area libraries closed due to methamphetamine contamination, with library officials from Englewood, Colorado, reporting increased drug use this winter and citing an uptick in homeless people using the library since its pandemic reopening.
Homelessness advocates say there is a nationwide trend of homeless people relying on public libraries as a safe haven where they can stay warm, use public restrooms, and avoid harassment from law enforcement. As a result, libraries and library staff are often trapped between a rock and a hard place, said Ryan Dowd, of Homeless Training, a conflict resolution program for frontline workers.
While library staff must be committed to serving patrons regardless of socioeconomic status, many of them don’t have training on how to deal with an unsheltered person suffering from untreated mental illness, drug addiction, or other problems.
Compared to homeless shelters, which are often loud, crowded and struggle to stay clean, “libraries are everything homelessness is not”, Dowd explained. “It’s a public space, for communal use. If the option is that or be outside all day in 15-degree weather, I know what I’d do.
“Homelessness is also incredibly boring,” he said.
Ty Bellamey, of Black Lives of Humanity Movement, said Volunteers of America help unsheltered people, who often don’t have permanent addresses, get a library card. Many of the homeless people she works with are avoiding the police, or other unsheltered people who might steal their stuff, she said. They go to bed, wake up, walk to the library when they’re cold, tired and hungry, and then do it again, even if they are handicapped or just got out of jail, she explained.
People who have access to shelter beds still will leave to read books and use library computers, Dowd said.
In recent years, libraries have also become the frontline for connecting unsheltered people with basic needs.
The Las Vegas-Clark county library district provides hygiene kits; almost 30 of the greater Las Vegas area’s libraries are designated Safe Place sites for homeless youth. Outreach staff in downtown Chicago host meetings to connect case managers and unsheltered people, helping the latter to get public benefits and fill out housing applications. A Salt Lake City library offers free clothing and for homeless people, many of whom reside in encampments along a nearby river.
“Many libraries have added social workers to their staff,” said Lessa Kanani’opua Pelayo-Lozada, the American Library Association president, citing a trend that started in the past decade.
Public libraries are “the first point of contact in helping people with serious needs”, she said, which includes referring homeless patrons to other community agencies. Pelayo-Lozada said library services and facilities are for everyone, the housed and unhoused, and staff addresses all patrons needs “without judgment to the best of their ability”.
Despite the inclusivity of a public library’s mission, conflicts between library staff, homeless people and communities have bubbled up this year. Last spring, in Anaheim, California, a homeless man punched a library employee and knocked them unconscious. He was later arrested.
In areas with higher socioeconomic status, the backlash towards the homeless is particularly vocal. This summer, some residents of San Francisco’s Castro district asked for the public library’s wireless internet to be shut off at night, citing the overwhelming number of homeless who camped outside the library.
In November, residents of Downers Grove, a Chicago suburb, raised safety concerns about indecent exposure, drunk and disorderly conduct, and physical assault stemming from the homeless population near the village’s library.
When Dowd trains library staff on de-escalation tactics, he hears a lot of comments like, “They didn’t teach me this stuff in library school,” he said. He says he teaches library staff to focus on the behavior they’re seeing. If someone is unhoused and caused a problem, then they have to deal with it. If a multimillionaire is in the library causing a problem, they also have to deal with it.
Bellamey said she hadn’t heard of any homeless people getting kicked out of the library. The people she works with tell her: “We’re just not allowed to fall asleep. And we’re not allowed to eat food at the tables,” she said.
Dowd stresses the importance of the pre-conflict in working with homeless people, many of whom may be suffering from mental illness or addiction. When a library employee greets and offers help, it generates what he calls sentiment override. People evaluate your actions based on how you acted in the past, he explained, and then when you ask them to do something, they give you the benefit of the doubt that you’re just doing your job.
However, “many people are just so terrified of talking to someone who is homeless so the first time they are talking to someone is when they have a problem,” he said.
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