Helping the Homeless: Addressing the Information Needsof the Homeless Patrons User Group Lucy Hart Peaden INLS 500: Human Information Interactions Dr. Ruth A. Palmquist 30 November 2009
Homelessness Defined According to the Stewart B. McKinney Act, 42 U.S.C. § 11301, et seq. (1994), a person is considered homeless if he or she: lacks a fixed, regular, and adequate night-time residence and … has a primary night time residency that is: (A) a supervised publicly or privately operated shelter designed to providetemporary living accommodations … (B) aninstitution that provides a temporary residence for individuals intended to be institutionalized or (C) a public or private place not designed for, or ordinarily used as, a regular sleeping accommodation for human beings.1 2 1 Hersberger, 2005, p. 199.
Homelessness by the Numbers In 1999, the Urban Institute and the National Association of Counties conducted separate studies to find the following statistics about homelessness in America2,3: two million homeless Americans annually of that two million,
Homelessness in America “Homelessness as a social phenomenon is a constant problem, but it started growing rapidly in the early 1980s. Government policies that cut back on social services, dramatic shifts in the labor market, rises in housing prices, severe cutbacks in government-sponsored low-income housing, and spiraling rents all came together to bring about an ever-growing, highly noticeable homeless population. “Homeless people are not stereotypes; they are members of our society. They are men, women, and children. They come from all national and ethnic backgrounds. They are native-born and immigrant. They are families, single men and women, and children on their own. And they have a right to visit and use our nation’s public libraries.”4 Photo taken from http://librarian. lishost.org/?cat=54. 23 Nov. 2009. 4 4 Grace, p. 54.
Information Needs of the Homeless “In past research efforts, homeless persons have articulated several everyday life information needs. These needs include information about:
“Information needs are often tied to the reasons that one becomes a homeless statistic, and the local services that can be provided to help resolve these problems. [… However,] not all of the information needs of the homeless are best answered by public librarians.”6 5 Extreme Case In the late 1980s, Richard Kreimer, shown above, fought his local public library for discrimination after being asked to leave because of poor hygiene and inappropriate actions. Some librarians quit in response to his behavior. However, with the help of the ACLU, Kreimer collected $230,000 in a settlement with the Morristown (New Jersey) Public Library. The case went to a federal court; Kreimer claimed his First Amendment rights had been violated. Photo from http://www.life.com/image/ 50468701 on 25 Nov 2009. 5 Hersberger, 2005, p. 199. 6 Ibid.
Pressure Point: Tension among Librarians, “Typical” Patrons, and the Homeless Interactions between librarians, typical patrons and the homeless are often uncomfortable for all parties. As “outsiders,” homeless people often feel marginalized and “[unworthy] in the perception of the information provider,” or the “insider.”7,8 They are often “[denied …] the tremendous strength of self-protection and preservation of their own existence in a hostile and blighted environment.9 Librarians report taxing experiences with the homeless, including being cursed at and threatened. “After awhile librarians can become offended. […] Librarians become demoralized. Staff members get tired of awakening people and are frustrated by the complaints of other patrons.”10 Furthermore, other patrons often complain about the behavior and presence of atypical patrons such as the homeless. Some patrons view an unkempt appearance as a threat. Many patrons adopt an unfair stereotype of the homeless, and this assumption does not help relations. 6 7 Chatman, 1996, 194. 8 Hersberger, 2005, p. 200. 9 Simmons, 1985, 113. 10Ibid.
Opposing Viewpoints Generally, librarians and scholars in the field of information and library science share the viewpoint that atypical patrons such as the homeless are equal members of the community and should be allowed to use the library like others. These individuals are listed below, and titles of their works can be found on the last page of this presentation: - Claudia Assis - Patrick Grace - Julie Hersberger - Shelia Ayers - Randall Simmons - Yi Ling Wong The argument of the public library as a champion of democracy is another reason given for inclusiveness. - According to a statement by the Public Library Association’s board of directors, “public libraries continue to be an enduring importance to the maintenance of our free democratic society. There is no comparable institution in American life.”11 Some, however, see atypical patrons as being detrimental to the core responsibilities and benefits of the library. - Blaise Cronin, Dean and Rudy Professor Information Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, has stated that “social inclusion is a noble goal and sound public policy, but it should not be construed as a license to abandon time-honored standards and expectations concerning behavior in public spaces such a libraries.”12 All scholars listed have called for more to be done, both within the library profession and in local communities, to address the needs of homeless patrons. In 1990, the American Library Association approved fifteen policy objectives relating to the poor and homeless. The list can be found on the ALA’s Library Services to Poor and Homeless Policy #61 webpage. Additionally, the ALA has established the Task Force on Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty (part of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT)) and well as the Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) Subcommittee on Library Services to the Poor and Homeless. 7 11 Simmons, 1985, 117. 12 Cronin, 2002, 127.
Research Methods Interviewing librarians and homeless patrons is the most widely used practice used by researchers studying the use of the library by homeless patrons. Scholars use census data and statistics collected by organizations devoted to assisting the homeless to support their findings. Extreme cases, such as the one described on Slide 5 about Richard Kreimer (who sued his local public library for discrimination and for violating his First Amendment rights), provide library organizations, librarians, and communities with the opportunity to improve relations with the homeless. They also provide researchers an opportunity to contemplate about legal issues and ways that libraries can avoid lawsuits. 8
What Can/Should Be Done Scholars who have studied how homeless patrons use the library and their relationships with librarians and other patrons have suggested the following methods when dealing with the homeless:
Remember that “the homeless are not a homogenous group.”13
Get to know the local homeless community and its needs.
“When libraries are considering services to homeless persons the libraries should have ‘knowledge of local homeless populations and their particular subgroups.’”14
Establish a protocol for dealing with the homeless (resources from the ALA might help, but make sure it fits your community’s needs) and stick to it. Review it often and revise as necessary.
Make information about community services (i.e. education, job services, children’s programs, etc.) well-known. Be aware of local services.
“If the policy states that users may not sleep in the library, the pillar of the community snoozing away in the local history room after having a little too much wine at lunch should be asked to leave along with the homeless person sleeping in the reference area.”15
Find ways to break the barriers that keep the homeless from the library.
For example, some public libraries, such as the New York Public Library, allow patrons without a physical home address to use documentation from homeless shelters as their address so that they can obtain a library card. Consider exploring alternative repayment options for fines.
Avoid stereotyping an individual based on his or her appearance, hygiene, or belongings.
Continued Reading Assis, C. (2004 January 22). Homeless find safe haven in public library – ‘It’s like a school,’ says day laborer, homeless ‘off and on’ for past 7 years. The (Durham, NC) Herald Sun. Retrieved from http://infoweb.newsbank.com/iw-search/we/InfoWeb?p_product=NewsBank&p_theme= aggregated5&p_action=doc&p_docid=1007E48B62DC9F89&p_docnum=8&p_queryname=4 Ayers, S. (2006). The Poor and Homeless: An Opportunity for Libraries to Serve. The Southeastern Librarian, 54. Retrieved from http://selaonline.org/SoutheasternLibrarian/SELnSpring06.pdf Chatman, E. (1996). The Impoverished Life-World of Outsiders. Journal of the American Society for Information Science, 47(3), 193-206. Cronin, B. (2002). What a library is not. Library Journal, 127. Retrieved from http://find.galegroup.com/ gtx/retrieve.do?contentSet=IAC-Documents&resultsListType=RESULT_LIST&qrySerld=Locale&28 en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28ke%2CNone%2C13%29blaise+cronin%3AAnd%3AFQE%3D%28pu%2CNone%2C17%29%22Library+Journal%22%24&sgHitCountType=None&inPS=true&sort=DateDescend&searchType=AdvancedSearchForm&tabID=T002&prodId=AONE&searchId=R4¤tPosition=23&userGroupName=unc_main&docId=A94774470&docType=IAC Grace, P. (2000). No place to go (except the public library). American Libraries, 31(5), 53-5. Harvey, A. (2002). Homeless perspectives of the public library. (Master’s paper, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, 2002). Retrieved from http://www.ils.unc.edu/MSpapers/2777.pdf Hersberger, J. (2001) Everyday Information Needs and Information Sources of Homeless Parents. The New Review of Information Behavior Research, 2, 119-34. ---.(2005). The Homeless and Information Needs and Services. Reference and User Services Quarterly, 44(3), 199-202. Simmons, R. C. (1985). The Homeless in the Public Library: Implications for Access to Libraries. RQ, 25(1), 110-20. Wong, Y.L. (2009). Homelessness in Public Libraries. Journal of Access Services, 6. doi: 10.1080/15367960902908599 10