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Serving Homeless Patrons in the Public Library: What can librarians do?

People experiencing homelessness make up a substantial portion of public library users. This guide provides background information and tips for serving this vulnerable population. This guide is a work in progress and will be updated.

As important as structural changes to library policy are in making sure your library is welcoming to homeless patrons, the behavior of individual librarians matters just as much.  According to Ryan Dowd, your behavior dictates up to 80% of patron behavior Librarians are not only the public face of the library, but their role as information providers means that they serve as gatekeepers for many social services.. The information on this page of the guide are guidelines for not only interacting respectfully with your homeless patrons, but for interacting respectfully with all patrons. Remember, you usually cannot tell if a person is experiencing homelessness based solely on how they look. 

A good start is this forty minute video in which Ryan Dowd sums up much of his training on homelessness for librarians. 

Empathy Driven Enforcement

Many libraries run on the assumption that the threat of punishment for breaking rules-- fines for overdue books, being removed for the day for sleeping, etc. However, those experiencing homelessness have experienced so much punishment that they expect it. Compared to losing one's job, living on the streets, and the other traumas associated with homelessness, does your threat of punishment really seem that bad? Threats of punishment do not encourage long-term compliance with library rules.

A more productive (and certainly kinder approach) is empathy driven enforcement.

Your goal should be to get patrons to comply with library rules by their own choice. Dowd suggests you can accomplish by:

1. Reducing miscommunication

2. Reducing unintentional conflict

3. Controlling the tone of the conversation.

4. Using punishment as a last resort.

Source: Empathy Driven Enforcement

Deescalation

One reason librarians find homeless patrons challenging is that they feel they don't have control of the situation. An essential way of gaining and maintaining control is to focus on deescalating a situation. 

Ryan Dowd describes difficult patrons as being on a level system of frustration and aggression.

Level 0: Patron is calm.

Level 1: Patron is annoyed.

Level 2: Patron is upset.

Level 3: Patron is angry and yelling.

Level 4: Patron is out of control (e.g., damage to property)

Level 5: Patron is physically dangerous. 

Most people start out at level 2 or below. To keep the situation from escalating further, or to help calm the patron down, you must lead by example. If you want your patron to be calm and respectful, you must start by being calm and respectful yourself. This can include.

  • Keeping your voice low: if you get loud, it will encourage your patron to get louder.
  • Being mindful of your body language: Avoid looking tense or angry. Keep your arms relaxed at your sides rather than giving into the impulse to cross them or put your hands on your hips. 

"Fighting fire with fire" will not only make the situation worse, but make you feel worse.

Dowd, Ryan, The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone, (Chicago, ALA Editions, 2018), p. 73-75.

Treat ALL Patrons Like People!

Homeless individuals are used to being treated unfairly. When working in a library, pay attention to the way that you, your coworkers, and your security treat homeless patrons. Are you singling them out? Consider asking yourself these questions.

Do you identify particular patrons as "problem patrons" and wait for them to mess up?

Increased scrutiny of certain patrons will make them feel unwelcome in the library and harm your interpersonal relationships with them. They will feel like you are looking for a reason to remove them from the library. This only encourages people to act out.

Do your visibly homeless patrons make you uncomfortable?

The majority of homeless individuals are not dangerous. There is no reason to be more afraid of them than you are of any other patron. When working with patrons, examine your implicit biases and work to actively counter them. This will make you a better librarian and a better person.

Do you punish people for falling asleep in the library?

There are of course very legitimate reasons why patrons are not allowed to sleep in the library. It can be impossible to judge the difference between a patron who is asleep because they are exhausted and a patron who is asleep because they are drunk or having a medical emergency. However, homelessness is exhausting and it is important to be empathetic towards your patrons who often are sleeping in unsafe and uncomfortable places and not getting enough rest. Consider avoiding bans for something as simple as sleeping. 

The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness

The information on this page comes primarily from the work of Ryan Dowd, who runs Hesed House in Aurora, Illinois, the second largest homeless shelter in the state. Dowd now travels the country providing training on how to best work with homeless patrons for libraries, police departments, schools, healthcare organizations, and other homeless shelters.

For more information:

Librarian's Guide to Homelessness- Website

Ryan Dowd provides a lot of the excellent information in his book and training for free on his website. Find quick advice, access Dowd's online training for librarians, and sign up to have weekly tips about serving homeless patrons sent to your email here!