Do homeless people have legal privacy rights in our public libraries?

As long as we keep defining them as homeless they won’t according to two recent feature articles in Public Libraries: “Aiming High, Reaching Out, and Doing Good” and “Problems Associated with Mentally Ill Individuals in Public Libraries.” You can infer a lot about these articles given their titles. The first was written by a reference librarian, Linda Tashbook, the other by three mental health professionals, who advocate that mental health professionals should provide consulting services to public libraries. The librarian tells us that homeless people can be our best patrons considering their informational needs: law, justice, and citizenship, and that they, more than anyone, can appreciate the public library as a bastion of democracy. Tashbook writes, “Reaching out to prospective and present yet disconnected homeless patrons with legal information engages their interest and also helps to reduce their disenfranchisement; they can’t be completely distinct from society if a venerable institution like the library knows about the facts of their existence and acknowledges that they have legal rights applicable to that existence.” The mental health professionals state that there is a pandemic of problematic individuals threatening the future of public libraries, but they base their argument on faulty logic and a flawed survey. Their solution for libraries with homeless patrons is for them to “identify the 10 percent of problematic individuals and ensure they receive treatment for their psychiatric disorders. This can be done in a number of ways, including through the use assisted outpatient treatment (AOT), which requires such individuals to follow a treatment plan (including in some jurisdictions taking medication) as a condition for living in the community.” Since when is the library a place to keep the community out of? Wouldn’t that be taking the public out of public libraries?

Prison Spending Outpaces All but Medicaid

“One in every 31 adults, or 7.3 million Americans, is in prison, on parole or probation, at a cost to the states of $47 billion in 2008, according to a new study. Criminal correction spending is outpacing budget growth in education, transportation and public assistance, based on state and federal data. Only Medicaid spending grew faster than state corrections spending, which quadrupled in the past two decades, according to the report Monday by the Pew Center on the States, the first breakdown of spending in confinement and supervision in the past seven years.”

See the full article.

150% homeless increase in Cleveland's public schools

“In December, when Project ACT, a social service program for homeless students run by the Cleveland Metropolitan School District, asked a group of homeless parents what they wanted for Christmas, the parents responded with wish lists worthy of Little Dorrit: toilet paper, bleach, paper towels, food.”

This story, along with others, appears in the article, “Hope for the Homeless: With homeless rates at record highs, America needs a bold new housing policy” (The Nation, Feb. 9, 2009).

224,000 students are homeless in California.
In Boston, homeless families number 3,870.
9,700 homeless families seek shelter in New York City every night.


“The number of Americans who say their lives are a struggle climbed steeply last year from less than half the population to nearly six in 10 people, a vast Gallup poll showed Friday.”

“US unemployment jumped to a 16-year high of 7.2 percent as a deepening recession pushed employers to shed a massive 524,000 jobs in December, capping the worst annual performance since 1945.”

Berkeley Public Library (BPL) denied waiver

Berkeley Public Library’s controversial RFID checkout system was bought out by 3M in 2008. 3M refused to sign the standard City of Berkeley forms requiring that they will not, for the life of the contract, work for nuclear weapons or do business with oppressive states (as defined by the City of Berkeley). The Peace and Justice Commission denied a waiver for 3M. The final decision rests with the Berkeley City Council.

Comics for community organizing, outreach and education

Graphic novels are a suitable medium for illustrating cold, hard facts. They can literally put a face on morbid, impersonal economic reality. Lois Ahrens understands this and perfects the medium well in the graphic novel, The Real Cost of Prisons Comix. This collective work, part of the Real Cost of Prisons Project, which initially began with the work of economists, reveals the human cost of the prison industry, where 2.3 million people a day are locked up in our nation’s prisons. The work is in three parts, “Prison Town,” “Prisoners of the War on Drugs,” and “Prisoners of a Hard Life.” “Prison Town” details the economic incentives behind mandatory sentencing guidelines and describes how the prison industry thrives in rural America, driving out local businesses and eroding community. “Prisoners of the War on Drugs” relates how racism, sexism, and classism fuels the prison industry. “Prisoners of a Hard Life” provides personal stories of women prisoners and their children. The illustrations, all in stark black and white, are paired beautifully with the text. Each section ends with reader responses, from community organizers to academics to prisoners and there is a glossary of terms used in the book. The series is designed as an educational tool for anyone who is interested or affected, which given current statistics, is one in every 32 Americans.

A library survey that targets homelessness

Edward Robinson-El, the new manager of D.C.’s West End Library, welcomes everyone in the library, including homeless people, but some West End Friends are not as hospitable. The issue has so divided this community that some feel it would be better to close the library for a time. See the West End Library Friends customer survey.

Care to comment? Email the DC Library:

or The West End Library Friends group:

Struggling college students turn to food banks

Whitney Malkin sees similarities between the homeless, working poor, and college students…. Here are excerpts from her article:

“Right now, with things the way they are, a lot of students just can’t afford to eat,” said Terry Capleton, who started a Facebook group called “I Ain’t Afraid to be on Food Stamps” when he was a student at Benedict College in South Carolina….

Deirdre Wilson, a junior at Francis Marion University in Florence, S.C., applied for food stamps in November because her paycheck from a work-study job didn’t stretch far enough to cover her expanding grocery bill.

ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61

The HHPTF, in partnership with the OLOS Subcommittee on Library Services to Poor and Homeless People, reported the findings from the ALA Task Force Member Survey on Policy 61.

Here is the full report:

Summary of the ALA Task Force Survey on ALA Policy 61 Library Services for the Poor.pdf

Attendees were asked for their input as well. Your comments and suggestions are welcome and will be compiled in a final report during the 2009 ALA Midwinter Meeting. Please send us your comments and suggestions.

If you are a library actively serving the poor please share your information and resources on the Library Success Wiki page.