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Today’s post—Part I—examines the issues being debated by library personnel, social activists, government agencies, the general library public, and homeless people themselves. Part II will cover the ways in which some individual libraries are addressing this growing concern.

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Libraries are bastions of free and equal access to knowledge and resources—and as such, they have become safe places for people with nowhere else to go. But finding a way to make homeless people feel welcome while ensuring the comfort of non-homeless library patrons is a challenge with no clear-cut answers.

The American Library Association (ALA) doesn’t require libraries to adhere to specific rules about the homeless, but states: “Access to library and information resources, services, and technologies is essential for all people, especially the economically disadvantaged, who may experience isolation, discrimination and prejudice or barriers to education, employment, and housing.”

The Atlantic recently included a book excerpt that focused on libraries in its assessment of mental health services:  “One community facility that has been profoundly affected by the deinstitutionalization of mentally ill individuals and our failure to provide treatment for them are the public libraries. Many libraries have become day centers for mentally ill people who are homeless.”

But Jessica Africawala, a staff member of the Dallas library system, says of her library’s homeless patrons: “I think it’s easy to lump individuals into a general group, and it is easy for people to decide what a group’s like because of one experience with one person. We cannot write them off as crazy, not write them off as less of a person. As a public library, we almost have an obligation to promote equality.”

As you might expect, the general library population has mixed feelings about this issue. Comments about the San Francisco Public Library on a popular review site range from lauding the library’s efforts to assist the downtrodden, to denouncing their “stinky” presence, to describing the library as a microcosm of the city itself, with its challenges of serving all residents, not just those employed in the tech industry.

The National Coalition for the Homeless (NCH) has a page on its website called “A Dream Denied:  The Criminalization of Homelessness in U.S. Cities.” The page lists ways in which local government and agency actions have affected the rights of homeless people. The Salt Lake City (UT) library system sponsored a civility campaign to teach homeless men and women how to behave while in the library, after other patrons complained about odor, intoxication, and noise. But library administrations also planned to begin collaborating with social service providers, saying that the library acts as a barometer for the homeless population with regard to the rest of the city and that “needs are not being met.”

Richard Kreimer, a homeless man, successfully sued the Morristown (NJ) library years ago for banning him due to body odor and odd behavior. He went on to file nearly 20 other lawsuits against other establishments and municipalities.

The only thing that’s clear about the issue of homeless people in the library is that there is no clear-cut solution.

In Part II, we’ll look at how some individual libraries are addressing this sensitive issue.

17 Mar 2014

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