Libraries and the Homeless

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Assisting the homeless population provides unique opportunities for libraries and librarians to reach out. Many homeless shelters are closed during the daytime, making libraries a comfortable, welcome haven for homeless patrons. Libraries help homeless people escape from the elements and find a safe place to sit away from the suspicious eyes, loud noises, and threats of physical violence.

Many librarians see the homeless as an underserved population, and they’re reaching out to help.

What are libraries doing to help the homeless?

Several libraries have hired social workers to help the homeless and others with financial difficulties. The Volunteers of America group (VOA) and their Library Engagement Teams provide assistance for the homeless, partnering with various libraries to help patrons cope with homelessness, mental health issues, and substance abuse.1

Deborah Ehrman, Deputy Director of the Salt Lake City Public Library in Utah , says she and the rest of their staff are strong advocates of welcoming diverse library users. The VOA helps them accomplish this. “The VOA’s three-person library engagement team provides assistance and referrals to low-income and homeless members of the Salt Lake City community on-site,” Deborah says. The library offers VOA a permanent service space, allowing them to store and distribute food, hygiene products, clothing, and other supplies to homeless patrons.

The Free Library of Philadelphia employs social workers to guide homeless patrons and offer them part-time employment through Project HOME, a non-profit Philadelphia organization committed to helping people conquer homelessness with employment, education, affordable housing, and more. Free Library partners with Project HOME to employ some homeless patrons as part-time bathroom monitors. Others are offered employment as dishwashers at the library’s culinary center.

According to Jennifer Chang, Central Public Services Division Chief for Free Library of Philadelphia, the library system’s branches help the homeless obtain key support. “We also provide ID services,” Jennifer says. “We have outside agencies coming in to help these people acquire ID because without ID they cannot receive benefits.”

Social workers also offer referral services, like shelters and health care providers, to homeless patrons.

Such social workers assist patrons and staff on site at the Free Library via a collaboration with DBHIDS (Department of Behavioral Health and Intellectual Disability Services).Chang says the social workers reach out to the neighborhoods, proactively seeking the homeless and other people in need. She hopes to do more with the program in the future. “We are trying to extend this program and are seeking funding to see if there are donors interested in this kind of service.” Because the library staff lacks the professional background required to help in these matters, they “rely heavily on collaboration with other city agencies,” such as the Department of Behavioral Health.

Connecting the homeless with the people and services that can best help them is another way libraries make a difference. Salt Lake City Public Library's Deputy Director Deborah Ehrman says the main library has partnered with Project Uplift: Social Services and Resource Fairs since 2014. “Project Uplift is a social services information and resource fair for the homeless and at-risk in Salt Lake City,” Deborah says. The fair provides a welcoming environment while guiding the homeless population toward mental health facilities, social workers, shelters, food banks, and other resources to meet their basic needs.

Smaller libraries may lack these robust resources, but librarians at the James V. Brown Library in Williamsport, PA, have found other ways to help. The library offers accessible resources to guide the homeless and other indigent populations toward helpful services. The library is also pleased to offer a safe, comfortable environment for these individuals.

So what can your library do?

Librarians at James V. Brown note the importance of maintaining strong relationships with outside organizations. Partnering with local non-profit agencies is one way to help connect the homeless to key services. Deborah Ehrman, from Salt Lake City Public Library, says that working with other providers can greatly expand the services a library is able to offer. She suggests developing “partnerships with local service providers in-house or on-call to offer service options to individuals in need.”

Hiring one or several social workers might also be a viable option for your library. Jennifer Chang stresses the benefits provided by hiring social workers. “They reach out to the neighborhoods and offer all kinds of help as needed,” Chang says. Beyond offering guidance to homeless people, the social workers hired by the Free Library of Philadelphia assist others who lack financial means of getting help, as well as new immigrants who are filling out key forms.

VOA’s Library Engagement Teams, part of the Homeless Outreach Program, can provide on-site services and referrals. Contacting VOA may be a key step in your library’s plan to help the homeless and other local people in need. Click here for more on VOA Homeless Adult Services.

Why not give these patrons a way to warm up and quench their thirst? Librarians at JVB note the positive impact a coffee hour can make in the life of a homeless person. A morning coffee hour helps homeless patrons connect with the library and network with special service providers.

Taking the library to the homeless may also be a possibility. In Brooklyn, NY, library manager Colbert Nembhard regularly visits a homeless shelter to sing songs and read stories to the children there.2 One library in Minnesota even launched an initiative to send weeded and donated books, along with information about the library and its other services, to homeless shelters. 3

When cold weather becomes a threat, a clothing, food, and blanket drive is an easy way to provide a modicum of warmth and comfort to the less fortunate. Librarians can donate these items to a local shelter or provide a pick-up location for patrons in need at the library. One library did just that, collecting and providing scarves, hats, backpacks, and even camping gear for unsheltered county residents.4

At the end of the day, only you know what’s best for your library and your community. As Brodart MLIS Stephanie Campbell reminds us, “we (librarians) are trained to know where to send those needing soup kitchens, food banks, shelters or affordable housing,” and other services. So trust your instincts as you consider new ways to help the homeless.

How does your library assist the homeless? Share your stories on Twitter with the hashtag #libraryhomeless.


1 Volunteers of America

2“A Bronx Librarian Keen on Teaching Homeless Children a Lasting Love of Books”

3“Deposit Collections in Homeless Shelters”

4“Joliet Library Helps Provide Winter Supplies to Local Homeless Population”