On Solving the Library’s Homeless “Problem”

Homeless and cold by Ed Yourdon

Homeless and cold by Ed Yourdon


There have been many articles over the years both in the mainstream press and in academic journals tackling the subject of homelessness in libraries. Having worked in urban libraries for the majority of my library career both as a Page and a Librarian, I certainly encountered the so-called homeless problem. I won’t go far in the way of introduction, instead I’ll give five major tips or themes for libraries and librarians who are unaccustomed to serving transients.

1. There are no rules about being homeless

Check your policies. I guarantee you that there are no rules specifically addressing the homeless. That’s because there’s nothing about the homeless that warrants creating special rules. Further, it can be difficult to tell who is homeless and who is not; frankly, I’ve seen many wealthy patrons who resemble the stereotypical “bum” and vice versa. We know that assumptions are a no-no when it comes to the reference interview and it’s no different when writing and applying policy. Stick to facts and behaviors.

2. Address issues right away

If the facts indicate that someone’s behavior is causing a disturbance, don’t delay. Go assess the situation and solve the problem. I’ve written before about how the library should be a comfortable environment for patrons and staff and how it’s the librarian’s job to maintain that environment. Thus when a patron’s foul odor can be smelled from several feet away, or when someone is sprawled out in the middle of the reading room, or when that disheveled guy is walking around declaring loudly to himself — it’s the responsibility of the librarian to address the issue. I’ve heard about countless situations in which library staff experiences “analysis paralysis” and ends up passing the issue to someone else, after the library’s comfortable environment has been anything but for the last hour. Fear of confrontation is just one problem, the other is the “but…but…but…but” parade: “…But maybe it’s because of an illness…but he has no place to shower…but he’s only here for two more hours…But nobody has complained (more on this later)…But I don’t want to upset him…etc.” All of this is fine and dandy, but when you’ve got a guy who smells like he just climbed out of a porta potty, but or no but, you should ask him to leave (right away). There are many strategies to make this easier that I’ll be happy to discuss them by email. The point is, don’t let problems linger. If you’re on the desk and aren’t sure of the policy situation, ask the manager. Managers, MAKE DECISIONS! There is no reason to form committees to discuss patron issues that have been around for times immemorial. The repercussions for constantly letting patrons stomp around doing this-and-that to ruin the library’s atmosphere are most certainly not good for anybody. And the longer you let it go on, the more difficult it will be to solve later.

3. Don’t wait for patron complaints

I mentioned this above and I’ll elaborate on it a little here: “…But nobody complained” should never be an excuse for letting somebody bathe in the restroom or anything else. We are all endowed with the power to make decisions. When there is a problem in the library that is obvious to any reasonable person, do not wait for outside validation before taking care of it. It is not the patron’s job to complain, and they infrequently do. Often because they fear retribution from the other party. Do not place your patrons in this uncomfortable bind. Take action and the patron that was inconvenienced but didn’t complain will be thankful you did.

That said, just because a patron complains does not mean you have to act. First consider whether the subject of their complaint is actually behaving badly; sometimes people complain because another person is distasteful to them. Not everyone believes that homeless people should be allowed to use the library. Yet, a grungy appearance is no grounds for being kicked out. The rule of thumb is to avoid knee-jerk reactions to outside complaints. You are not obligated to do anything unless you recognize something illegal or against the rules. As with everything, assess the situation and act accordingly.

4. Be the host

If someone came into your house and ruined your furniture, surely you would ask them to leave. Likewise, if one of your party guests was thirsty, you’d give them a drink. I’ve always thought that the librarians on the floor of the reading room resembled hosts, and within the context of a library, why not ? We answer questions, make sure everyone is comfortable, walk the floor, and solve problems. The mental jump here is in truly becoming a steward of the space; just as a concierge assumes responsibility for the needs of his guests, so shall librarians. Does that change with regard to homeless patrons? Not really. I usually make it a habit to check a person if they look confused or disoriented. By check, I mean approach and ask if they need help. In my role as a host, I try to make some contact with everyone in the building if possible. That could mean eye contact and a nod, checking a person, or simply a greeting. Short of that, a walkthrough every hour or so gives you a sense of what’s happening in the “house”.

5. Be firm

Don’t take no guff. Don’t argue with patrons. Uphold library policy. Dole out consequences for not complying with said policy. People won’t always want to do what you say. That doesn’t matter. Be firm.

As you may have figured out, the name of this article is a bit of a misnomer. Though it is ostensibly about serving the homeless, it is actually meant to say that serving the homeless is just like serving everybody else. Writing an article about the so-called homeless “problem” would be to give credence to such a problem — one that I don’t think exists. Problems that are sometimes associated with the homeless: loitering, sleeping, body odor and other hygiene issues, drugs, etc. are not homeless issues in particular, they are general behavioral issues that may or may not be against the rules at your library. In my library, sleeping is allowed, so that’s not a problem. The others are not allowed, so we take care of them as they arise. Follow that reasoning when solving behavioral problems among patrons and the library will remain a comfortable place regardless of whether your patrons have a home address.

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