Libraries Respond: Services to Poor and Homeless People

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 number of poor children, adults, and families in America rise, 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 become 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.

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.

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

ALA Member Groups

Selected ALA Policies for Serving People Experiencing Poverty or Homelessness