Just a Little Understanding: A Social-Service Provider’s Perspective on Homeless Library Users

by John Gehner and Kali Freeman

This information is provided in conjunction with the Infopeople Webcast “Library Services and the Homeless: A Legal Perspective,” presented by Mary Minow and available here.

How well do you know the lowest-income members of your community? Does your library invite their input for decision-making? Are you aware of their needs?

How well do you know the network of local services that support poor people? Do you routinely consult with crisis counselors, medical staff, or anti-poverty advocates? Does their expertise inform your work?

A variety of news reports this year have detailed new library policies to control odorous patrons—ostensibly homeless people. A library systems director in Salt Lake City stated in the Deseret Morning News, “If there are appropriate roles for the library to play, we want to do that—but we’re also not a social service agency.”

Unfortunately, any mention of partnerships between library staff and social-service professionals has been conspicuously absent from news coverage of odor policies in states like California, Texas, and Utah.

In April 2005, the Progressive Librarians Guild student chapter at the College of St. Catherine (St. Paul, Minn.) convened a discussion on homelessness and libraries. The PLG invited John Petroskas, a shelter and housing specialist with Catholic Charities, to share his knowledge and views. He is a regular participant in regional poverty initiatives and an avid library user.

Petroskas outlined reasons why his homeless clients use libraries: Chuck loves to read The New Yorker; Patrick follows sports online; Chris is preparing a business plan in conjunction with a class; Tammy does pro se legal work related to a child custody case; Bruce visits a library in his former community to stay connected there; Carlos, who struggles with mental illness, simply benefits from a peaceful setting.

“Just a little understanding goes a long way,” Petroskas noted. “If you knew the environment that a given person has to live his or her life in, it would probably make you more flexible.”

Here follow some additional insights informed by Petroskas’ experience with counseling and advocacy. (The complete discussion is available as a podcast here.)

Connecting homeless people with libraries

Libraries are great for people like me who are cheap or for people who are poor. It’s a great free resource. Economically it’s a smart thing to get connected to if you don’t have a whole lot of money.


Some systems are very difficult for homeless people to get into. All you need to do to get a library card is go in with an ID. If you have an address it makes it easier. But libraries have policies for people who don’t have an address or just have a mailing address like a P.O. box or general delivery. You won’t be denied a library card most likely, so it’s an easy thing to get and it’s free.


A library helps ground people in the community they move into. And I think that’s more important than we might recognize. One problem with moving people out of a shelter and into their own apartment is that they get lonely. They feel like they lose the connection to the community they had.

The shelter is a dysfunctional community, but it’s still a community. You have friends, people to talk to, there are things to do, you can exchange gossip. When you move out of the shelter, it can be disorienting and lonely.

The library is one really easy way to get people connected to community. They can take a class or go to a performance, meet friends, talk, or use the Internet. It’s a way to ground people and that increases the likelihood that a person will succeed in living independently and will maintain their housing, which is the key thing we’re looking for.


[Going to the library] is educational and is better than some of the other things you could do with your free time. Giving someone something constructive to do is a positive thing—especially if they’re trying to recover from an addiction. It’s one place they can go to do something positive.

For people who have mental illness, it’s a safe and quiet refuge. Especially if you’ve been in a shelter. The Dorothy Day Center in St. Paul is a good example. It’s supposed to be a shelter for 125 single men and women. But on a crowded night they have 215 people. As you can imagine, it’s wall-to-wall people.

If you have schizophrenia, or post-traumatic stress disorder, or you suffer from anxiety, or you are antisocial, being crowded in a gym with 215 other people, sleeping six inches apart, smelling each other, and listening to each other—it drives people nutty. A library is a quiet, safe place where people with [these disabilities] can go to decompress.

These are the reasons why I like people to get connected to the library.

Conquering fear

I think there’s a lot of fear of that dirty guy over there in the corner who’s having a wild conversation with himself or with the bookshelf or with his shoe … Librarians are not mental health workers. You’re not called upon to do diagnostic work, and you’re not therapists, and you can’t help a person solve their mental illness. But you can feel free to approach a person and name the behavior.

This is something that was hard for me to do when I started this work. To say, “Excuse me, I know that you’re busy, but can I have a minute of your time?” to someone talking to the lamppost. In every instance I have ever had to do that, the person snaps out of it and focuses on you for at least a few seconds. You can say what you need to say and they’ll probably do what you ask them.

Assisting homeless people and librarians

Librarians in libraries with a lot of homeless people should make themselves familiar with the resources available in the community. They should know if the police have a crisis team and how to contact that crisis team and not call 911. These officers are trained to intervene with people who are in a mental health crisis and [they] behave very differently in an emergency.

There are specialized services available to help. For example, Regions Hospital (St. Paul) has a crisis team and Hennepin County Medical Center (Minneapolis) has the Behavioral Emergency Outreach Program (BEOP).

[Social-service agencies] also have outreach workers who can come out. If you have a person who is coming to the library and causing problems, maybe it’s a person an outreach worker would like to get to know. We could try to talk to that person about what their behaviors are and how they impact other patrons. We can explain that if they want to keep using the library they might need to modify their behavior.

For people who are intoxicated or high, there are detox services in every community. In Minneapolis there is a detox van, with a police officer who does nothing else but round up intoxicated folks.

You don’t have to solve a person’s problems. I work with homeless people every day, and I don’t solve anybody’s problems. Homeless people don’t ask me to … They have to do the work. I can connect them to a resource, but I can’t do the work. And librarians can’t do the work for people either. But you can connect them to resources, and that’s what your jobs are.

If you want to speak with professionals like John Petroskas but are unsure about where to start, try dialing 2-1-1 or visit www.211.org/callcenter.htm. Enter your zip code and click on the “Comprehensive Information and Referral” link.

This is a one-stop information and referral service created by the United Way. Referrals are provided (in at least 30 states) to agencies that offer a variety of basic living needs, crisis counseling, and emergency relief.

Finally, if you require a snapshot of poverty in your community, visit the U.S. Census Bureau’s American FactFinder: http://factfinder.census.gov.

Simply enter appropriate location information in the box provided and click “Go.” You’ll be presented with a Fact Sheet listing local “Economic Characteristics,” including data on families and individuals living below the poverty line.

John Petroskas (jpetroskas@ccspm.org) is a shelter and housing specialist for Catholic Charities in Minneapolis.

John Gehner (jgehner@hhptf.org) coordinates the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force, a unit of the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT) of the American Library Association (ALA).

Kali Freeman (kwfreeman@stkate.edu) works in development and external relations for the College of St. Catherine and is a co-founder of the Progressive Librarians Guild student chapter at CSC.