Welcoming the Homeless into Libraries

Martin Luther King Library

Photo by Flickr user Alex Barth (CC BY 2.0)


I hope those reading this post had a warm, happy Thanksgiving, surrounded by family and friends. I spent most of last week in Florida at my parents’ “snowbird” house with my immediate family, all of us having traveled at least 1,200 miles to eat, drink, and laugh together by the pool. While there I spent my downtime reading a moving memoir about homelessness entitled Breakfast at Sally’s. The irony of reading such a book at Thanksgiving did not escape me, nor did the dramatic contrast between my comfortable lifestyle and that of former publishing mogul Richard LeMieux. LeMieux’s business collapsed in 2002 and left him homeless and clinically depressed, after which his wife left him and his adult children turned their backs. About to take his own life, he was stopped from jumping off a bridge only by the barking of his beloved dog.

Breakfast at Sally’s is about LeMieux’s struggles to survive and find new meaning in life, offering a unique if somewhat darker perspective on American culture. Throughout the author’s sad experience some bright points appear, however, including the many churches and organizations such as the Salvation Army (which the homeless dub “Sally’s”) that provide free meals, clothing, and a sense of community for those on the streets. The kindness of those who dedicate their time and energy to keeping these associations running is critical in keeping LeMieux and his fellows alive and fed.

Another bright point that appears early in the story is the public library, about which LeMieux says:

The library was another sanctuary for the homeless. There was always plenty for everyone, rich and poor. Those without a roof over their heads could escape with Wolfe, Kafka, or Robert Louis Stevenson and have shelter from the heat and the cold, the rain and the pain (31).

This passage, along with repeated references to the importance of books to various homeless characters in the story, gave me pause. The small city where I live, Boise, Idaho, may have lower rates of homelessness than larger metropolitan areas around the nation (12 people out of every 10,000 are homeless in Idaho, versus 22 nationally according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness), but even in my university library we see individuals on a regular basis who appear to fit the profile. Have I ever helped them, or has my library been doing anything to help? Not beyond the definitions of what we do for any other community user, and in fact perhaps less. We may watch them out of the corners of our eyes to make sure they don’t cause any trouble, and we tolerate their presence. If they have a photo identification card we’ll let them use a public computer for an hour, and if not they can have ten minutes or so at a quick-use machine. If no students complain, they can nap in one of our lounge chairs upstairs in a quiet corner. That’s not much, particularly when you consider the situation from LeMieux’s vantage point on the streets. The obstacles between his circumstances–with no address, phone number, or job references–and a rebuilt, stable life seemed insurmountable.

Of course libraries aren’t homeless shelters or counseling centers and homelessness is complicated problem that libraries alone don’t have the power to solve. The Madison, Wisconsin, Central Library is an example of the conflicts that can arise when a library is so popular with the homeless that other patrons object. On the one hand, the library is providing a positive experience for homeless individuals. Pat Schneider, author of the above-linked article from The Cap Times, writes:

Ask [the homeless] why they hang out at the library and they’ll talk about comfort. It’s warm. It’s dry. There are public restrooms. But the library offers much more. “They’ve got books and magazines and music. I love the library,” enthuses one young woman.

This echoes the sentiments expressed by LeMieux in Breakfast at Sally’s. On the other hand, a large population of homeless patrons can make others (justified or not) feel unsafe or uncomfortable walking in the building. Schneider continues:
[T]he crowd on the library patio turns off some, library officials admit. “I hear anecdotally of people saying they prefer to go to branches because they feel safer,” says Theodore “Tripp” Widder, president of the Madison Library Board.

Balancing the needs of varied library user groups is not easy, and it becomes especially difficult when there are deep-rooted prejudices against one particular group, like the homeless. Yet if we truly serve our communities, as any library open to the public inherently does, we would do well to reconsider our attitude and our services for the poor and the homeless. Think about the requirements for the basic services that most of us take for granted, such as requiring a home address or driver’s license to check out books or to access a computer. While such things sound simple, someone who has lost their home has often lost access to those basic privileges as well. This is not just a public library issue: it’s an issue for all libraries that are open to the public. If we serve the public, we serve the wide variety of people who make up the public, regardless of their address.

In the spirit of the holiday season, I’d like to dedicate this blog post to some of the wonderful libraries that have met the call for help in their communities, and I’d like to share their stories from my research and reading on this topic. Perhaps their stories, like Breakfast at Sally’s, can inspire the rest of us to greater understanding of the plight of the homeless. Perhaps they can remind us of our ability–and responsibility–to work with local organizations to create programs and services to assist the needy in our own towns and cities.

ALA and Homelessness

In 1990 the American Library Association approved Policy #61, Library Services to the Poor. This policy was created based on the belief that “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.” The policy, overseen by ALA’s Office for Literacy and Outreach Services, includes sixteen objectives to accomplish this goal, from promoting food drives to eliminating fees for those who can’t afford to pay them, as well as creating low-income programs and services.

The “Poor People’s Policy,” as Policy #61 is called, is a statement of belief and a list of general tenets that all libraries are encouraged to adopt, similar to the Library Bill of Rights. However, as Sanford Berman described in a 2006 article in Street Spirit, the Poor People’s Policy has not been accepted as widely as that older document. Berman’s observations on the tension between library ideals and reality are an insightful and passionate reflection of our profession’s unintentional hypocrisy. Library services, in general, serve the haves and exclude the have-nots, a circumstance he labels “classism.” Examples of classism include the small number of libraries carrying major serials on homeless issues; the fact that libraries in the lowest income areas are often open the fewest hours; and policies and laws banning “offensive body odor,” bathing, or sleeping (such as in San Luis Obispo and Houston). He ends with this plea:

If librarians and others can first recognize their own attitudinal hang-ups, understanding what makes them view welfare mothers and homeless people, for example, unfavorably, and ultimately grasping that poverty—not poor people—is the problem, that poverty can be reduced if not ended, and that the most vulnerable and dispossessed among us are citizens and neighbors who deserve compassion, support, and respect—if we can do these things in our heads and hearts, then there’s a real chance to overcome classism.

Perhaps the strongest response to the Poor People’s Policy has been within the Social Responsibilities Round Table, which created their Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force to advance the objectives of the policy. The Task Force expanded those objectives and provided more specific recommendations for libraries interested in improving their accessibility to all, while working on raising awareness and action. Still, one task force can’t do it alone. To make libraries more welcoming and supportive for the poor and the homeless, individual libraries need to adopt the Poor People’s Policy and take responsibility for those in need in their own communities.

A 2002 article by Lan Shen, “The Dilemma of Urban Library Service for the Homeless,” (Current Studies in Librarianship, v. 26 no. 1/2), breaks down existing library services for the homeless into three categories. The first is partnering with local government or nonprofit agencies to provide learning opportunities for the homeless, perhaps by providing lists of local resources or making meeting rooms available for support groups. The second category is bringing library programs or services out to homeless centers or shelters, such as storytimes for families. The third category is in-library programs and services like literacy programs, “camps” for homeless children, or referral services. Shen’s article is helpful as a starting point in beginning to think about some of the potential ways to serve the homeless in our communities. Some libraries are even finding ways to expand beyond those categories to provide out-of-the-box initiatives in their communities. The H.O.M.E. Page Café in Philadelphia is a prime example.

The H.O.M.E. Page Café

One of the most powerful initiatives in libraries to support the homeless is the H.O.M.E. Page Café at the Free Library of Philadelphia. This library coffee shop grew out of a partnership between the library and Project H.O.M.E. (Housing, Opportunities for Employment, Medical Care, Education), a local nonprofit working on homelessness and related issues. The two had initially collaborated to solve the library’s problem with their restrooms, which were popular with the homeless to the point of alienating other patrons. Project H.O.M.E. offered to fund a program in which formerly homeless individuals in supported housing were hired as restroom attendants to monitor the restrooms and keep them clean. The library watched their restroom problems dissolve, while needy individuals got back on track to supporting themselves. The program has been extremely successful and cemented the partnership between the two organizations (see “The Story of the H.O.M.E. Page Café” in Public Libraries Jan/Feb 2009, pp. 32-34).

When the Free Library of Philadelphia decided to create a coffee shop, Project H.O.M.E. proved to be an invaluable collaborator once again. They proposed a café whose primary purpose would be not revenue but job training for formerly homeless individuals living in supported housing. They obtained a grant, garnered equipment donations from Starbucks, and brought in a local bakery interested in supporting social causes. They hired employees, not based on their knowledge or experience, but their need and potential (there are a few examples in other fields, too, for instance Gould Farm in Massachusetts). The result of this partnership was a library café that helps the homeless get back on their feet while inspiring loyal patronage among socially aware customers. Through collaboration and creativity, the Free Library of Philadelphia and Project H.O.M.E. have built a model that could be constructively reproduced in cities across the nation. Hopefully, it will be.

Crossing Library Types to Serve the Homeless

The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library in San José, California, combines the San José Public Library and the San José State University Library in one collaborative system to better serve both communities. And they do! In an article last year in The Reference Librarian, “Addressing the Needs of the Homeless: A San José Library Partnership Approach,” Lydia N. Collins, Francis Howard, and Angie Miraflor describe how the libraries joined together not only in a shared building, but also in a combined effort to bring services to the homeless in their community. They formed a task force to identify needs, priorities, and community partners, and began a concerted outreach initiative.

Like The Free Library of Philadelphia, the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library partnered with local organizations in San José such as InnVision, which serves low-income people in the San José area. The library brought computer classes and storytimes to InnVision’s centers, and the two organizations plan to expand their joint offerings. Further, the library began to plan their own in-library programming to address the needs of homeless patrons, such as assistance with job applications, legal information, and English as a second language training. The library brings social workers and lawyers into the library to offer advice and guidance to the homeless during free sessions. And to top it all off, the library administration provided customer service training to librarians and staff to increase their sensitivity to homeless patrons. Collins et al report:

There are two on-going programs targeted specifically at the homeless: storytimes for families and computer classes. Both programs are conducted at homeless agencies and bring in 35 to 40 children and adults. There is also a weekly “Lawyers in the Library” program that offers free 20-minute legal consultations, and there is a continuous waiting list for this service (114).

While Collins et al. acknowledge that they need to assess current initiatives and seek new ways to support the homeless in their community, they are actively experimenting with a variety of approaches and adjusting their services and programs based on the feedback they receive. By building an environment of sensitivity and accommodation, they have embraced the Poor People’s Policy and are a model example of a multiple-library-type partnership created for the benefit of the homeless in their area. Although it is unusual for an academic and public library to share a space, that is not a barrier to cross-library collaboration on programs and other initiatives similar to those at the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Library.


I certainly don’t have the answers to homelessness, but perhaps in the writing of this post I have uncovered a few answers to homelessness as it relates to libraries. The first and most obvious conclusion is that libraries that have “problems” with homeless patrons should seek out partners in the community to help them solve those problems in a way that will simultaneously assist the homeless population. No one wants to use the library restroom to bathe, nor is the library anyone’s first choice for napping. The initiatives described in this post—and I’m sure there are more that I haven’t uncovered—reveal that collaboration with organizations already working on homeless or low-income issues can often provide meaningful solutions that can even offer positive press for the library. Further, any library that serves the public would do well to adopt the Poor People’s Policy and consider new, collaborative ways to serve those in need in the local community instead of tossing them out the door.

Another conclusion we can extract from the stories provided here is the undeniable fact that libraries of any type can help homeless individuals rebuild their lives if we can eliminate classist attitudes and policies and stop judging people based on appearance (and aroma). Like the libraries described above, we can plan or host programming targeted to the needs of those on the streets. We can educate ourselves on local organizations and laws that the homeless should be aware of, and reach out to them with that information. These initiatives don’t have to be time-consuming for those of us already stretched thin; they may just require contacting local partners and offering space or other support.

Above all, it’s important for those of us working in libraries to keep in mind that, like it or not, libraries are a lifeline for those without homes. We provide safe spaces, a sense of community, and a means of communication. In Breakfast at Sally’s LeMieux describes the isolating effect of homelessness caused by living outside the daily bustle of work, home, and family. Libraries have the ability to create opportunities that empower people to reconnect with their world. As individuals we can help by putting aside our distractions, digging down into our humanity, and treating all our patrons with compassion, kindness, and generosity. It may not be in our job descriptions, but it is in our power to make a difference.

Suggestions for further reading:

Gehner, J. (2010). Libraries, Low-Income People, and Social Exclusion. Public Library Quarterly, 29(1), 39-47. doi:10.1080/01616840903562976.

LeMieux, R. (2008). Breakfast at Sally’s: One Homeless Man’s Inspirational Journey. New York: Skyhorse Pub.

Tashbook, L. (2009). Aiming High, Reaching Out, and Doing Good: Helping Homeless Library Patrons with Legal Information. Public Libraries, 48(1), 38-45.

My thanks to Ellie Collier, Ellie Dworak, Emily Ford, and Amy Vecchione for offering valuable feedback on a draft of this post.

17 Responses

  1. Jane Salisbury

    Thank you for a great summary of recent history and call to action. I applaud the openness and lack of fear-mongering in your post! It IS in our power to make a difference.

  2. This is a great article, consistent with all that comes from the Lead Pipe team. Insightful, thoughtful and most importantly thought provoking. I hope everyone I know reads it!

  3. Very insightful indeed. I work in a large urban public library and we have a varied population that includes homeless men, women, and families.

    Behavior problems are not as great as one might expect. This is due to two things:

    First, we have a standards of conduct policy that we enforce for each person in the building. As an urban library, we also have a security team that goes above and beyond. They have led our staff in changing the atmosphere.

    Our standards of behavior are not unreasonable. Due to lack of seating, we must prohibit sleeping and do so gently. Body odor offensive to others is handled in a positive manner by a quiet and empathetic discussion and encouraging the customer to make use of local options, including medical services. We have a standard handout and, if we are not all familiar with each service, we can learn and explain.

    Most importantly, we bear in mind that each of these customers is an individual. We may be the only person who recognizes that person as an individual all day. Not a “homeless dude.” An actual individual.

    We get to know them just as we get to know our other regular customers. We know their names and many staff now feel comfortable with having those particular customers know theirs.

    We build community with all customers, not just the clean ones. And that is the greatest reward. I have seen withdrawn and disheartened homeless and poor drawn out of their isolation. They overcome their fear of us and begin to look us in the eye and communicate. As their fear decreases, so does ours.

    We build a bridge with that group just as we do with customers belonging to other groups. When you start to build a bridge, it’s amazing how many people will meet you in the middle.

  4. Thanks to Jane and Clare for your kind words. Anne, thank you for sharing your library’s story — what a great example for the rest of us! It seems like a combination of firm security and a compassionate approach may be the key elements for libraries popular with the homeless in their communities. It’s wonderful to hear you reinforce the fact that there’s a balance that is achievable for all of us.

  5. Kim,

    I appreciate your insights and shout-outs to libraries and partnerships that are already modeling examples of successfully identifying community needs and establishing support efforts. Thank you and may I repost?

    Caitlin Q.

  6. Your post reminds me of the concept of “critical information literacy”, I came across reading R. Hall’s article titled: Public Praxis: A Vision for Critical Information Literacy in Public Libraries (Public Library Quarterly, 29(2), 162-175). Critical information literacy suggests that librarians need to engage their communities more directly and actively by asking WHY an information need exists. Such a WHY question in the context of this post is WHY homelessness might be occurring in the library’s community?
    To quote the Hall:
    “If public libraries recognize that information literacy is not a neutral skill that can be “deposited” into library patrons, they must take up this challenge as information literacy educators—to become partners with the members of their communities, pose problems, and act upon the world in
    order to change it. Problem-posing public libraries will actively seek out issues of concern within the community and create spaces for these conversations
    to happen. They will address controversial topics and ask challenging questions. These conversations can include library-sponsored events, panels,
    conferences, speakers, even blogs and wikis—any forum that will include community members in the exchange of ideas and give them the opportunity
    to pose questions and problems, too.”

    Hall draws from the concepts of Social Justice and the work of Friere. Indeed, libraries and librarians would do well to “act up on the world and change it” if they can.

  7. Read you will

    I am currently on a public library board and our director has requested that we create a policy to disallow patrons with bad body odor. Yes, she is trying to keep the homeless out of our public library. It saddens me to know that she is trying to turn our “public library” into a “not so public library”.

    Thank you for all your posts, this helps put everything into perspective.

  8. Bev

    I just cannot get used to hearing people put down the misfortunes of others. I received my MLS 32 years ago and during the years I was working the sort of comments you have mentioned were common. I have been disabled for 6 years and spent 2 montha this summer homeless myself. This is not something I pictured when I started school or my first library position. I commend all of you who are working to help those of us who may find ourselves in unique situations due the quirks of life.

  9. Great post, Kim.

    As I read it, I found myself raising objections. They felt realistic, grounded in the difficult decisions anyone in charge of a budget must make. And then, as I kept reading, you addressed each one of them.

    You’re right. What we need to commit to is clear. We also need to understand that, as with other commitments such as Freedom to Read, making the commitment is just the first of many important steps.

    Since we like to think systematically here at In the Library with the Lead Pipe, I’ll make two suggestions for some systematic changes that I think would lead to useful changes in library culture.

    1. I’d like to see a library school establish a dual-masters degree program with a school of social work. My sister has a social work degree (and, coincidentally, she works at Project H.O.M.E.), as does my wife. As a library director, I’d love to hire a well trained librarian who also had a social worker’s training, orientation, and skills.

    2. I’d like to see prominent funders — IMLS or Gates-level funders — sponsor initiatives to study and package the kinds of programs that are working well, such as the ones you mention above. Libraries are really good at collaborating and information sharing, though it seems we often do best when we have great working models to copy.

    1. Kate

      I love the idea of a joint MLS/MSW degree. As a current MLS student about to enter the field as a public librarian, I’m realizing more and more how useful that would be. In San Francisco, the library and the department of health have formed a partnership that places a psychiatric social worker in the library to help serve homeless patrons, and others. When librarians themselves don’t have this kind of training, these kinds of partnerships are key to making sure we’re getting everyone the help and information they need.

  10. Thank you for bringing awareness to ways in which libraries can help the homeless. This is the first I’ve heard of the “Poor People’s Policy” and I am glad that such a document exists. I hope that more libraries will work to eliminate classism and strive to better assist the most vulnerable in our communities.

  11. Ed

    Excellent article, thanks so much! The Cap Times article you pulled from had another piece that I think really illustrates where current thinking among beleaguered library staff is missing the point:

    “Library officials like Director ************** are quick to say that it’s not homelessness, but behavior, that is the issue.”

    Actually, homelessness itself IS the issue and we need to engage institutions to develop successful community partnerships that actually serve the homeless instead of address the “problem” through design or policy.

  12. I was reading this article on the new year’s evening, sitting in the comfort of my home with heater quietly working. It made me think about the time when economy went down and I had a real chance to become a homeless myself. I think it is great that many libraries make an effort to help homeless and treat them as people who need help, and not as a nuisance.

  13. Pingback : Does Your Policy Pass the Smell Test? | Cheryl Becker

  14. Eric Rife

    I loathe being a fly in the ointment, especially with regard to such a compassionate article, but ….

    The fact of the matter is there are as many different types of homeless as there are in any other type of group, as LiMieux himself points out. Too often, in the noble effort to be compassionate and to serve all, we entertain the notion that the homeless are merely victims of a cold and cruel society who are being underserved by the public library system(s).

    During my 12 years at the library where I work, I’ve helped people locate lost relatives, get social services, get enrolled in school, fill out job applications and copy edit resumes. I’ve forgiven fines, handed out cash (my own, not the library’s), and purchased toiletries and clean clothing for some of the patrons. I’ve bent rules, allowed people to bring in “service animals” (that are obviously not) and catered to the whims of people who seemingly only know how to acquire what they want through intimidation. And every day, I have to be a diplomat, arbitrating childish squabbles at the Internet terminals where our regulars sit all day playing games and watching videos.

    My experiences are hardly unique and every staff member I know can tell similar stories of the lengths to which they’ve gone to serve all our patrons.

    While I agree, wholeheartedly, that we must combat classism, racism and sexism wherever we find it, we must also accept that people who aren’t mentally ill or disabled are usually responsible for the predictable consequences of their actions. And in the case of way, way, way too many homeless patrons, those actions include abuse of the staff and other patrons and a complete disregard for the needs of others.

    No one wants to believe, especially me, that many homeless patrons are happy living the life they do. But the fact of the matter is many of them are perfectly content to spend their days watching music videos and playing games on the computers, while other patrons, anxiously looking for a job or social services, must wait while someone finishes their umpteenth game of Magic Diamonds.

    I don’t begrudge the money they make panhandling (which, according to several of the homeless patrons I’ve spoken with, regularly nets them a few hundred dollars a day), nor do I necessarily begrudge anyone for poor hygiene, sleeping or bathing in the restroom. I don’t even resent Richard LiMieux who, by his own admission, was a successful businessman with a country club membership and “a beautiful home on the water, boats, cars, hot tubs and exotic vacations.”

    I do, however, resent anyone who feels entitled to treat staff and other patrons with contempt. I do resent the guy who bled all over me (as I was pulling him off a security guard) which led to months of worry and Hep B shots.

    And I resent the homeless who circulated the petitions to cut public workers’ pay, benefits and pensions. Thanks in part to their dutiful efforts, new hires in our city will not receive a pension and all city workers have their pay frozen for a total of eight years.

    That said, will I continue to treat all patrons with the same respect, dignity and level of service I’ve always provided? Of course. Will I ever feel guilty because, ostensibly, library staff don’t do enough for the homeless? Never.