Recently in a library and information studies class discussion, a fellow student commented that “homeless people are subverting libraries. They’re just using them as places to sit around or to use the bathroom.” Thankfully, most of the class shot this moron a disgusted look. The central element to librarianship of any kind is service. And as public servants we are in no position to judge or make demands of who we will serve based on class or whether or not that person has a brick-and-mortar place to call home.
I have been guilty of making fun of some of the quirkier personalities who come into the library – albeit anonymously, but still. I have also had the privilege of being able to work closely with homeless people as well as those who choose to live differently from the rest of society. Those experiences have been frustrating, difficult, and sometimes smelly. But those people deserve the vital community services that public libraries provide, like help searching for jobs, housing, and even families online. While I understand why some members of the library community find sharing space with homeless people (whether perceived or otherwise) uncomfortable, I disagree with policies, regulations, or influences from neighborhood members that are meant to relegate how public library space is used and who that space “should” be for.
Libraries have been serving as places of respite for those without homes, many of whom have mental illnesses, since their inception. Historically, public libraries were developed as buildings for the elite and lower classes to come together in a common space, leveling the societal playing field. And while public libraries should serve the needs of all users equally, including segments of the population other than homeless people, we need to remember that service to certain population groups should not be contingent on who we would like to serve, but should be based on who needs those services. The American Library Association adopted a policy almost thirty years ago that calls for libraries to respond to the growing number of poor people, including those without homes, and to work within the library to sensitize the greater community to the needs of these citizens as well.
The fear among many community members is that public libraries will become "homeless shelters" and not serve other segments of the population, such as children and families. But if people fear this happening, it must mean that there is a noticeable need. And if the need is this great, why are we doing nothing more about it than worrying that we will be exposed to poor and homeless people in our public libraries?
In Los Angeles homelessness is an issue that, in my opinion, has not effectively been addressed. Yet, with the number of public library branches in this city, and the resources offered at the Central Library, we should be able to do more for our street-dwelling population. The Seattle Public Library has been forward-thinking in this regard, and has been incorporating vital hygiene and job-related services for people who live on the streets and use the library’s facilities. With the right balance of non-invasive security and updated policies, as well as cooperation with other community service providers, Los Angeles and its libraries could become a more welcoming and rehabilitative space for those who need it most.