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Part I examined the issues being debated by library personnel, social activists, government agencies, the general library public, and homeless people themselves.

Today’s post—Part II—discusses the ways in which some individual libraries are addressing this growing concern.

The main branch of the San Francisco Public Library employs five peer counselors, all formerly homeless, as well as a full-time psychiatric social worker stationed at the library to help indigent patrons find access to food, shelter, hygiene, medical attention, and services to address substance abuse and mental health issues. Since the outreach program began, the SFPL has been flooded with requests for guidance from libraries all over the country.

[Photo: Russell, a homeless man in Lansing, MI, enjoying a newspaper at the local library. Courtesy of the Lansing Online News.]

The Sacramento, Tulsa, and Salt Lake City libraries have hired social workers, nurses, and other outreach workers. The Greensboro (NC) library began a program to serve free meals during the winter.  The J. Erik Jonsson Central Library in Dallas has started “Coffee and Conversation,” a program aimed at the homeless.

Other libraries have debated the creation or enforcement of rules. The Santa Cruz (CA) and Lombard (IL) library systems ultimately decided against sleeping bans, taking the stance that unless patrons are disturbing others with how or where they sleep, the humane thing to do is to leave them alone. The Iowa City (IA) library did adopt a sleeping ban.

In San Luis Obispo, CA, library employees were given the authority to tell homeless people to leave the premises when an informal rule against foul-smelling patrons became official. Under this policy, patrons who are kicked out can be denied access to the library if they refuse to leave. 

Jill Porter is the Assistant Director for Public Service at Traverse Area District Library (TADL) in Northern Michigan. The area has no permanent homeless shelter (though an initiative to secure one is underway).

Porter estimates that there are about 65 chronically homeless people in the area, many of whom visit the library on a daily basis. “My personal feeling is that we have no more behavioral problems from our homeless patrons than we do from people with roofs over their heads,” she says. “There seems to be a self-imposed code of conduct; if someone new is acting up, the old-timers will keep them in line.”

TADL doesn’t currently provide any special programming for the homeless. Porter notes that homeless people in the library want to use the computers, read newspapers, and enjoy quiet time just like anyone else.

However, she does see an opportunity for a possible future program. “Our homeless patrons often spontaneously show up to clean up the grounds, probably due to requirements for community service by local agencies,” she says. “I’d love to extend this service to the library’s gardens , having patrons work with a master gardener who would educate, provide new skills, and maybe provoke interest in a gardening career.”

Whether your library is currently focused on enforcing rules, creating programming, or making no distinction between the homeless library population and the rest of your patrons, the only clear-cut conclusion seems to be that the need to adopt policies with respect to homeless people will only continue to grow.

20 Mar 2014

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