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How Libraries Have Embraced Their Role in the Public Safety Net

Making libraries more comfortable for all patrons—including the homeless.
(Photo: Melinda Shelton/Flickr)

(Photo: Melinda Shelton/Flickr)

The city of Los Angeles will soon declare a state of emergency because of its growing homeless population, the Los Angeles Times reported yesterday. The number of homeless Angelenos continues to grow even as the city has invested more money in its Housing Authority. There are now 26,000 homeless people in L.A. One public service that's feeling the heat: libraries.

Librarians have long acknowledged that their places of employment act as de facto daytime homeless shelters in many cities. Libraries are, after all, public places where folks can get free access to the Internet, read, entertain themselves, learn how to get services like housing vouchers, and simply stay warm. Employees in city libraries estimate they get 680 to 780 homeless patrons a day, according to the Times. Employees also report an increase in complaints from housed patrons. A quick look at the Los Angeles Public Library's Yelp reviews reveals the nature of those complaints. "There is a certain number of homeless and transient people lurking within," one reviewer writes. "However, that issue seemed to be controlled well by library security personnel."

It's time for policies that embrace libraries' role in the public safety net.

The assumption among such commenters is that libraries should do their best to prevent homeless patrons from visiting, but libraries are public spaces that are legally open to everyone. The American Library Association even has a policy statement urging libraries to "recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society," and to train staff on reducing barriers that keep poor and homeless people from using the facility. The National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, meanwhile, opposes rules designed to keep people out of public spaces—including libraries—based on their housing status. For example, some libraries have rules against carrying large bags onto the premises. But that's just a cheap way of barring the homeless from visiting, as homeless folks must carry all of their belongings around because they don't have anywhere to store them and keep them safe from theft.

Especially in cities where other public services for homeless people are failing, library staff members must work to balance the desires of their homeless patrons and those who are uncomfortable with the signs of homelessness. Some big cities have figured out fixes, as American Libraries reported in November: hiring in-house social workers, or allowing non-profits serving the homeless to operate out of their conference rooms. The San Francisco Public Library even has a mobile shower parked outside.

These are policies that embrace libraries' role in the public safety net. Perhaps it's time housed patrons took note.