I just finished reading an article by Chip Ward, former assistant director to the Salt Lake City Public Library which tries to make sense of the public library’s role in relation to homeless people. The article begins by pointing out what is obvious to anyone who spends a significant amount of time at the public library, that there are lots of homeless people there every day. This is to be expected when shelters push people out in the early morning, and other “public” places such as restaurants, and malls, have little tolerance for the homeless.

The article discusses how libraries are caught in a precarious situation, not really being able to do much for the homeless people who arrive on a daily basis needing help. Often the paramedics are called for medical attention, other times it is the police. Both options are incredibly expensive to the local government, and neither one fixes the problem. Some of the homeless people who arrive at the library every day have alcohol problems, others are mentally ill, others just have an unpleasant appearance, and the librarian who is trained to do reference, cataloging, or some other library related task, is forced to becomes a social worker as well.

The article mentioned a particular case in New Jersey where a homeless patron successfully sued the local public library for banning him because of his body odor; this apparently has motivated public libraries to create policies covering the homeless, creating a complicated space between the various patrons using the library and the library’s role in the community. I understand that my local public library has one of these “odor policies” which says that a person can be asked to leave if their smell is offensive. But who is to say what is offensive? Besides this probably only gets enforced with homeless people, while too much perfume, or heaving smoking can produce smells that are just as unpleasant.

This article also covers issues about mental and physical illness in the homeless community, and how librarians must respond to these. Apparently at the public library in Salt Lake City, sanitizing gel and latex gloves are part of the regular work equipment.

I encourage you to read the article and learn more about the situation; the article is here.

On a related note, here is a blog by a homeless man in Nashville, TN, and a homeless woman in the UK.