Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement

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Library policies can often stand in the way of providing equitable services to those experiencing homelessness.  Developing effective policies and helping library staff properly utilize them can be the most important steps.  Policies should strive for clarity, be posted or readily available, and be enforced equitably and with sensitivity.  
Use of Materials and the Internet
The library’s collections, available for borrowing or for use in the library, provide a tremendous benefit to all members of the community. The same is true of the Internet.  As a general practice, policies dictating the use of materials and the Internet should be as simple as possible to help ensure full use by those within the community.  Where there is the need to register users for service, registration policies should be as straightforward and inclusive as possible.  When developing usage policies, consider:
  • Does the policy reflect the Library Bill of Rights Article V, “A person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views”?
  • Do any user registration requirements (utility bills, driver’s license) preclude certain populations from obtaining borrowing privileges or Internet access? 
  • Are alternative forms of identification made acceptable and are library staff aware of the alternatives? 
  • Are there policies in place that prevent gender identity discrimination by offering creative solutions to patron name changes?
In the event individuals cannot obtain immediate borrowing privileges, are staff prepared to suggest other options, including use of the materials within the library or a free day pass for the use of computers?
Are there possible exceptions or alternatives to fines?
Personal Conduct
Libraries can and should develop policies that outline what is considered appropriate and inappropriate use of and conduct within the library and its facilities.  Conduct policies should help patrons understand the environment of the library and help staff maintain a space that is beneficial for all users. When developing policies on patron conduct, consider:
  • Does the policy respect the rights of individuals under the First Amendment?
  • Do library staff and patrons understand warnings, processes for appeal, and means of regaining admittance to the library should conduct violations occur? 
  • Do policies provide a clearly understandable measure or determination for disruptive conduct (e.g. “behavior poses a nuisance to other patrons”, “an intention to disrupt”) avoiding arbitrary or debatable standards or expectations?
  • Do stated and posted policies emphasize that the library welcomes everyone equally and does not discriminate?
  • There is a difference between deliberate behaviors and behaviors or circumstances beyond the patron’s control. Do library staff understand how to effectively address either behavior as it affects the library environment?
As much as there should be a focus on patron conduct, there should also be a focus on staff conduct.  It is more than just treating all users alike—it is treating all users to an excellent customer service experience.   That includes being helpful, respectful, and friendly no matter the outward appearance of an individual.  
Issues of patron conduct should be respectfully addressed.  Some issues—odor, cleanliness—may require a refined approach, seeking to provide help to the individual (ready print-outs of shelters, clothes banks, etc.) as much as maintaining a comfortable environment for other patrons.  In all situations, staff should also be prepared to conduct themselves responsibly and safely, understanding when situations escalate beyond their control and when to request medical or security support.