If you work regularly with homeless patrons, you've likely encountered uncomfortable situations where communication seems to fail despite your best efforts. This article describes three common mistakes that can turn a merely uncomfortable situation volatile: "parenting" a patron, waiting, and worrying about gender. The advice here comes from Ryan Dowd, a man with decades of experience serving and working with the homeless. This article defines those three mistakes and offers guidelines to counteract them to help you diffuse, rather than escalate, tense situations.
The common mode, especially in large urban public libraries, is to speak of the challenges presented by our homeless patrons. They make other patrons feel uncomfortable, there are stories of staff confrontations, bad odors, and property damage... All of these are valid concerns. This article, however, will make the case that your library's response to homeless patrons can let you shine a bright light on the relevance and power of a 21st century library in a way that few other issues can. And at the best-run libraries all around the country, it already is.
The challenges surrounding homelessness can seem overwhelming
The issues surrounding homelessness present a poignant set of challenges and opportunities for public
libraries. In the abstract, libraries have a core mission to serve the underprivileged and help close gaps in opportunity and information access. Helping the homeless improve their own condition is one of the most important services a library can provide in its community. As a practical reality, however, many homeless people have problems the library is not equipped to address: serious mental illness, addiction, chronic physical health challenges... Also, the presence of obviously homeless people in the library can alienate the families and the more affluent patrons that libraries rely upon for funding support.
How, then, do effective libraries balance these competing priorites? What best practices have the most effective libraries implemented?