By Gwen Vanderhage, MLIS
Public libraries are very familiar with our country’s homeless population. From small libraries with a handful of regulars, to large libraries with a crowd assembling outside at opening time, most of us service at least some homeless patrons. The current economy and nationwide housing crisis have simply made it harder for families to find places they can afford to live. As a result, the difficult reality facing homeless adult patrons has become a regular part of public library discourse. The movie “The Public,” by Emilio Estevez, which was released last month (after being screened for librarians at last year’s ALA Annual Conference and this year’s Midwinter), has helped to raise awareness about the issue of homelessness in connection with libraries.
But homelessness often hits kids even harder than adults. Over the last decade, the number of homeless children and teens has grown exponentially. One-third of the homeless population is now comprised of children, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. This population is less visible in the library, since kids are often in school during the day. But they are an important group of people, nonetheless, that are using and benefiting from public library services.
Removing barriers for families that deter them from using the public library is important as we librarians become some of the best partners to help the children of homelessness succeed. Can your library waive the physical address requirement for homeless patrons seeking to acquire a library card? Does your library offer fine forgiveness? Many public libraries are moving to remove fines altogether, whether from children’s materials and cards, or from all materials and cards. When children are unable to control their own transportation to and from the library, fines on materials create a huge barrier to checking out homework materials or books for escapist pleasure reading.
While public schools provide meals and a safe place for children during the day, the stresses of being homeless and the inherent lack of stability impact their academic achievement. Homeless children have higher rates of absenteeism and tend to change schools more frequently. Their literacy and graduation rates are lower than those of their peers. The growing digital divide is yet another problem plaguing these children and other low-income students. While internet access is more available via cheaper phones, it’s hard to do homework research on a phone. Libraries provide materials for homework, computer access, and a safe, warm place after school and on weekends. Some libraries partner with their local school district to provide free lunches during the summer.
For many years, librarians have partnered with day shelters to provide outreach services and materials for homeless families. Librarians from Queens, New York, to Cleveland and Seattle, share storytimes with kids in shelters. When I was a children’s librarian in Denver, Colorado, I was one of them. I held a weekly storytime for the kids at a nearby women’s and children’s shelter during computer training for mothers. The preschoolers in this group were eager to hear stories, sing songs, and particularly loved to interact with puppets and pop-up books. It was not just a time for the children to learn those storytime skills of active listening and learning vocabulary, but also a time when a grown-up would talk with them and listen to them. As we librarians became more nimble with Every Child Ready to Read practices, we also began to include the mothers, hoping to pass on some of those skills to help parents be a child’s first teacher. Parents under the stress of homelessness are likely not thinking about speaking 30,000 words to their child each day. Anything librarians can do to model the behaviors of reading signs, singing together, and telling stories about what you’re doing will help demonstrate that the foundations of reading readiness are easy to incorporate.
Does your library offer unique services and programs open to, or particularly for, homeless youth and their families? A recent article from School Library Journal, “Almost Home: How Public Libraries Serve Homeless Teenagers,” outlined many efforts aimed to get homeless teens into the library, engage them with programs, and pair them with services. If your area offers services particularly tailored for teens, consider forming a partnership with them. Offering donuts and board games during a time that a social worker can come and help teens is a great way to open the door.
We spend a great deal of energy encouraging people to come in when their children are tots. We are always wondering how to keep the kids coming in to the library until they become adult library advocates. Why not apply that same principle to children who happen not to have a home? Homeless patrons simply represent another subset of our community, albeit one with a particular set of needs and challenges. Providing whatever aid we can and a welcoming place during hard times is a wonderful way to grow lifelong library lovers. Isn’t this one of our primary goals as librarians?
“Library Service to Homeless Youth and Families,” Vikki C. Terrile, IFLA
“Homelessness: A State of Emergency,” The Seattle Public Library
After spending many years as a children’s librarian and collection development specialist at Denver Public Library, Gwen joined Brodart to share her passion for children’s literature with as many different libraries as possible. Click here for more.