Libraries and Homelessness |

2 min read
Josephine Ensign

Facing Homelessness Community Event

Josephine Ensign

Yesterday, at a community homelessness resource and health fair where I was a faculty preceptor for a footcare clinic with some of our medical and nursing students, I was reminded of the powerful role of libraries in the lives of people experiencing homelessness. Among the tables and tents offering warm winter coats, gloves, hats, behavioral health resources, pizza, bagels, coffee, haircuts, youth shelter, and women’s day shelter services, and our footcare, the University Branch of the Seattle Public Library table was quite popular. Amidst the absurdity of a return to backward-looking book bans throughout our country and in a season of thanksgiving, let us remember that public libraries literally save lives.

It is not hyperbole to say that public libraries save lives, especially for people experiencing homelessness. Libraries give sanctuary and shelter, both emotionally and physically. Libraries yield quiet, peacefulness, community, heat, and, hopefully, air conditioning when it’s hot and smokey outside. Libraries have public restrooms, which are surprisingly scarce in Seattle, as in most U.S. cities. Harried parents can find respite in libraries with their bright, colorful children’s book sections, free access to the internet and computers, and children’s story hours. Children, teens, adults, and older adults, no matter their race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, differing abilities, socio-economic and housing situations, can all find stories of people like them who deal with challenges they face and who find ways to not only survive, but endure, resist, and thrive.

If you are fortunate enough to be comfortably and stably housed, please remember that not all of our community members have these basic necessities. When visiting public libraries, try to practice tolerance for all people who seem different to you. That extends to people who ‘appear’ to be experiencing homelessness.

A growing number of public libraries throughout our country and internationally are hiring social workers to assist library patrons from all walks of life to access needed health and social support. Whole Person Librarianship is a library-social work collaboration hub with resources and a map of social work-supported libraries. A recent and excellent book is Libraries and Homelessness: An Action Guide by the librarian and homelessness advocate Julie Ann Winkelstein—available, of course, in many public libraries.

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