Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement

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Essential Library Services for People who are Homeless

Libraries will be most successful in providing those services aligned with the general mission and purpose of libraries. For all of the other ideas of how to help those experiencing homelessness — food, clothing, personal or medical care — libraries can play an important role as partners or supporters of other service organizations. 
Library programming is a popular service for all patrons.  For the most part, people who are homeless want the same programming as other library users: computer classes, educational workshops, storytimes, arts and crafts, and social activities. 
If there is something unique to programming for patrons who are homeless, it is the need for outreach and promotion.  Physical barriers and social exclusion prevent many people who are homeless from getting to the library or learning about programs in a timely fashion.  Make sure that shelters, organizations that work with people who are homeless, and transitional housing facilities regularly receive fliers, emails, and other promotional materials.
Programs of particular interest to people who are homeless may include programs on health, mortgage or rental assistance, and applying for government benefits.
When seeking ideas for outreach and programming, one of the best places to look for ideas is in local street newspapers. Street newspapers are usually written, edited, and filled with articles and opinion pieces from the viewpoint of people who are homeless. 
Reference (or Preventative Librarianship)
Reference can be among the most essential services librarians can provide and it should be one of the key pieces in serving library users who are homeless. Information of most need to people who are homeless or in jeopardy of becoming homeless may include where to find shelter, food or a shower; accessible medical care; help in finding employment; or how to find a professional that can help stop an eviction or foreclosure.
Many of these reference questions can be easily answered by having a list of local social services available at the reference desk, in literature racks or displays, or on a library resource page.   To increase awareness and collaboration throughout the library, involve staff in researching contact information for social service organizations and develop a plan to make sure this information is regularly checked and updated.
Library Services to Young People in Transition
Libraries have a special place in the lives of children and young people.  By far the most important consideration when working with young people in shelters or foster care is to help them recognize the public library as a consistent, safe and welcoming place.
Library cards are the first step to building a connection, so it is especially important for administrators and other decision-makers to examine library policies to make sure they are as inclusive as possible.  If possible, be flexible when the situation warrants it.
Be aware that some young people have not had much experience with libraries or that their experiences have been negative ones. Look for ways to rebuild trust and convince young people that the library is worth a second chance. Framing the library as a source of free information and entertainment (computers! gaming! music!), a place to meet and hang out with friends, and a safe haven where they can escape from daily trials and tribulations, may get teens and kids looking at libraries in a whole new way.
Libraries can look to participate in special programs for youth. Some libraries offer a program called “Safe Place Training” and youth can text 69866 with the word “safe” to locate the nearest youth shelter or “safe place” and the phone number. 
In most communities, there are organizations that have the specific experience, training, and contacts to provide services to people who are homeless.  Locating partners can be as easy as attending local government meetings, joining meet ups of social service organizations, consulting a directory of local social services, searching the Internet or phone book.  Likely partners include:
  • Transitional housing facilities
  • Food banks and community organizations
  • Health clinics and hospitals
  • Faith-based organizations (churches, synagogues, mosques, etc.)
  • Educational institutions and after school programs
The library can play a key role as resource provider, community center, and facilitator for multi-organization collaborations.  An initial conversation can spark ideas for larger conversations or just be a reminder of how the library can play a role in the lives of community members.