Wednesday 11 April 2012

Homeless and in the library?

Hi everyone! Heather here. 

I have had a couple of run ins lately with some of our resident homeless people at my library. We of course have an open door policy and give all our customers the same treatment regarding service, welcoming and space. It is not until there is an issue with behaviour or being somehow disruptive to staff or other patrons that our open door policy is challenged. This is all in a general sense and applies to all customers and the policy is not documented as such, just understood among my co-workers. I believe we should have some formal guidelines at least and am becoming more inspired to document them myself, to not only back up my staff, but also to protect the rights of our users.
The issue I have had lately is one where some aggression was shown and threats were made by one of our regular library daytime residents. Conversations around how we should deal with the issue included comments such as ‘obviously this person has issues’ or ‘obviously this person is homeless,’ which made me think, if it’s so obvious, why don’t we try to do something positive to help this person rather than banning them from the library?
I began to do a little research on the incidence of homeless people using the library as a daytime refuge and what other libraries are doing to welcome them and form a relationship with them. Some of the positive actions libraries are taking include:
·         Classes in using pcs, writing job applications and searching for jobs
·         Employing staff to advise where assistance may be found
·         Running book clubs or movie viewings for the homeless
·         Employing them to shelve books or tidy the shelves
I also read some awful comments from some librarians saying that the homeless ‘should not be encouraged’ to use the library and that it ‘isn’t the librarians role’ to deal with them. While dealing with the homeless is not something that is specifically taught in any training courses that I have seen, dealing with people in general is the librarians role. It seems the attitude of some is to forget that the homeless are people.
A colleague of mine has done some volunteer work and has dealt a lot with people who are homeless. Some of his tips for managing problem situations include adopting an informal, ‘blokey,’ non threatening way to address them for men, and for women adopting a motherly tone and personalising the interaction to diffuse a situation. I myself have always found listening and talking to people like adults, with understanding and respect works to diffuse difficult situations with all kinds of people, from teenagers to the elderly and all in between.
Does your library offer any services to the homeless as a particular group? Do you have a written policy addressing homelessness in the library? Have you had any training in managing the behaviour of difficult customers? Would you be inclined to run classes or book clubs targeting this particular group?
Here are a couple of links I found handy in my search:

See also the Footpath Library if you are interested in volunteering yourself.


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