Fighting Homelessness: Libraries on the Front Lines

When people think of libraries, they think of books. But for homeless individuals, they're often a place of refuge. Here's how the American Library Association has helped enable that mission around the country.

Doors of libraries are open for all—including the homeless.

America has more than half a million homeless people, and many of those individuals struggle to find places to go during the day. For many, libraries have become a refuge.

Serving the Homeless a Priority

The American Library Association (ALA) has helped its members embrace this role in the community—guiding and helping libraries serve as welcoming spaces and resources for those without places to call home. The association, through its Public Library Association (PLA) division, has inspired many libraries to introduce ideas and programs of their own.

“The core of the ALA and the PLA is to enhance learning and ensure information for all,” said Felton Thomas Jr., PLA president-elect and director of the Cleveland Public Library, in an interview with Associations Now.

“Overall, at the core, we make sure the librarians know to welcome everyone through that door.”

A turning point came in 1990, when ALA agreed to implement a policy on library services for the poor, dubbed the “Poor People’s Policy,” to make sure libraries were open to them and to work on understanding poverty in the hopes to possibly end it.

Then in 1996, the social responsibilities division of ALA founded a Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force to promote and implement library services for low-income and homeless people.

At times, libraries run into challenges in offering such services, especially to those who have mental illnesses, and in ensuring that librarians have the right kind of training.

But ALA has taken a number of steps to remedy these issues. The association has released several books and resources about poor and homeless library patrons. And the association made poor and homeless patrons a key focus of its 2015 Diversity and Outreach Fair in San Francisco in June.

“Sometimes it’s a struggle,” Thomas admits. “As the ALA and PLA, we try to do what we can.”

A Public Space for All

Following the lead of the national associations, libraries have worked to make their public spaces even stronger with additional resources.

“The librarians and libraries have a very important role in helping the homeless,” Thomas said.

He mentioned that the Cleveland Public Library has partnered with an outside organization to work with homeless library patrons, helping them utilize the library’s services for life opportunities.

“We’re helping the communities by providing opportunities to the homeless through engagement,” he said.

Other efforts libraries around the country are trying include:

Outreach programs: In Denver and Queens, New York, among other places, libraries are offering training and educational outreach programs. The Denver Public Library provides low-income and homeless patrons with bus fare[PDF] to the library.

Dedicated social workers: Libraries in Philadelphia, San Francisco, and Washington, DC, have hired social workers to help the homeless, especially those who are mentally ill. Leah Esguerra became the the first social worker of her kind when she was hired by the San Francisco Public library in 2009. Esguerra walks around and assists patrons who may need help, while also directing them to resources.

“Libraries are the last bastion of democracy,” Esguerra told National Geographic.

Patrick deHahn

By Patrick deHahn

Patrick deHahn is a contributor to Associations Now. MORE

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