People experiencing poverty or homelessness constitute a significant portion of users in many libraries today and this population provides libraries with an important opportunity to change lives. As the numbers of poor children, adults, and families in America rises, so does the urgent need for libraries to effectively respond to their needs.
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.
Poor and Homeless Populations in the U.S.
The labels “poor” and “homeless” can be difficult for many people to use and understand. In many ways these terms have come to be labels for people, replacing their identity, when really they are just people experiencing a particular—and hopefully temporary—condition.
People experience poverty when they lack money to purchase goods or services. It’s often difficult to provide a clear line or standard at which people experience poverty.
The U.S Government currently provides poverty thresholds and poverty guidelines to help measure poverty in the U.S. population. Poverty thresholds were originally developed in 1963 by Mollie Orshansky of the Social Security Administration and were based on a formula based on an average families’ food expenditures and the then most economical food plan provided by the Department of Agriculture. Poverty thresholds are updated every year by the U.S. Census Bureau. For 2011, the poverty thresholds are:
- 1 person--$11,491
- Under 65 years old--$11,702
- 65 years and over--$10,788
- 2 people--$14,667
- Householder under 65 year--$15,139
- Householder 65 years and over--$13,610
- 3 people--$17,922
- 4 people--$23,018
- 5 people--$27,274
- 6 people--$30,841
Poverty guidelines are issued each year in the Federal Register by the Department of Health and Human Services as a simplified version of the poverty thresholds and are used for administrative purposes such as eligibility for federal programs. Poverty guidelines are adjusted each year based on the Consumer Price Index. Poverty Guidelines are established for the 48 contiguous states and the District of Columbia, Alaska, and Hawaii.
According to the U.S Census Bureau’s Income, Poverty, and Health Insurance Coverage in the United Sates: 2010:
- 46.2 million people were in poverty in 2010, an increase from 43.6 million people in 2009. This is the fourth consecutive annual increase in the number of people in poverty.
- Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate increased for many populations, including non-Hispanic whites (from 9.4% to 9.9%); African American (from 25.8% to 27.4%); and Hispanics (from 25.3% to 26.6%).
- Between 2009 and 2010, the poverty rate for children under the age of 18 increased from 20.7% to 22%.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) issues an Annual Homeless Assessment Report which reports the number of individuals and families who were homeless in the previous year, both sheltered and unsheltered. The report provides results of local counts of people homeless on a single night in January (Point-In-Time counts) and patterns of all people who used residential programs for homeless people during the 2010 federal Fiscal Year (October 2009-September 2010).
According to the 2010 Annual Homeless Assessment Report:
- 649,917 people were experiencing homelessness during the Point-in-Time count in January 2010, an increase of 1.1 % over the last year (643,067 in January 2009).
- 79,446 family households—241,951 persons in families—were homeless on the night of the PIT count, an increase of 1.2% over the last year.
- 109,812 people were chronically homeless—persons with severe disabilities and long homeless histories—a decrease of 1% over the last year.
- More than 1.59 million people spent at least 1 night in an emergency shelter or transitional housing program during the 2010 AHAR reporting period
The Department of Housing and Urban Development provides a content area with resources and information on homelessness in the United States. HUD’s state information page provides links to state departments with more information on housing and homelessness in local communities.
Equity of Access Issues for People Experiencing Poverty or Homelessness
From illiteracy and illness to hunger and discrimination, there are many barriers that can potentially inhibit library service and disallow poor and homeless people from full access to library services.
People experiencing poverty or homelessness may be limited or prohibited by many issues, including:
- Library card or access policies requiring a permanent address
- Prohibitive fines, fees or other penalties or the perception that services incur fees
- Staff who are not trained in service to people who are poor or homeless or who are made uncomfortable by prejudices against people who are poor or homeless
- Limited promotion at the community centers and organizations (food banks, shelters, after-school programs) which serve people experiencing poverty or homelessness
- Limited access to the library building by either limited means of transportation or service hours
- Lack of programs or resources that address people’s experiences or current situations
Selected ALA Resources for Serving People Experiencing Poverty or Homelessness
- Libraries Transforming Communities: Extending Our Reach - SRRT Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force Presentation from 2013 ALA Annual Conference (.ppt)
- Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness through Library Engagement - Archived webinar recorded on March 21, 2013
- Classism in the Stacks: Libraries and Poverty, 2005 Jean E. Coleman Library Outreach Lecture by Sanford Berman
ALA Member Groups
Selected ALA Policies for Serving People Experiencing Poverty or Homelessness
Contact and Questions
Questions? Comments? If you would like to share questions or comments on ALA’s resources for poor and homeless people, please contact ALA’s Office for Diversity, Literacy and Outreach Services at 800.545.2433, ext. 4294, or firstname.lastname@example.org.