The New Hampshire Library Association posted this story about San Francisco Public Library’s homeless outreach team on their Facebook page today. I find it intriguing that libraries are hiring outreach staff, some of them formerly homeless themselves, who are working with homeless patrons to help them meet their physical and even psychiatric needs. I immediately recalled an article in Harper’s last fall about Seattle Public Library and its much more punitive approach. Instead of social workers they hire guards.
Our library has rules that impact the homeless particularly (like no sleeping), but no guards. We have a good relationship both with our homeless patrons and with area outreach organizations. We have a handout at the reference desk about local social services, food pantries, shelters, and other resources. I think most of the staff are very respectful and kind to all the patrons, regardless of whether they’re homeless.
I think it’s great that libraries are stepping in to offer information — a core part of our mission after all — but I wondered about going so far as having “a full-time psychiatric social worker” as San Francisco has. Then I read that the ALA’s “Library Services to the Poor” policy, implemented in the 1980’s. As a part of promoting “equal access to information for all persons” the policy notes “it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.” A social worker who can refer someone to the help he or she needs is doing just that. And quite possibly making library guards a little less busy.
I felt pretty proud to be a librarian when I read the ALA policy, and I’ll be keeping it in mind when I’m working tonight. What’s your library doing to help the poor, and particularly the homeless?