Is Homelessness a Public Library Problem?

My current public library job is in an area known as south central King County, where many individuals experience the challenge of homelessness. Official counts cite Seattle and the King County area as having the third highest population of homeless people in the country (as of 2017, the last official census count).

And we experience that reality in the libraries where I work.

What does that mean? It means that people sleep outside of the library doors in anticipation of opening. That there are uncomfortable bodily smells (of varying intensities) throughout the library. It means that people come in laden with bags and carts and animals, which take up extra chairs, tables, and computer space. That often the root of homelessness is connected with mental illness and/or addiction, and this means behavioral issues in libraries are not uncommon.

Why the library? Libraries are one of the last truly public spaces where everyone is welcome. Our buildings are heated and air-conditioned, plus there’s access to entertainment via computers, wifi, or books. Libraries try to be appealing so that individuals with residences will leave to come visit us – for those without residences, the appeal is even more so.

This puts public libraries in a tough position. At the core of the mission of modern libraries is creating community opportunities for education and empowerment. Homelessness is obviously an unresolved issue in King County communities – so, are libraries not motivated by their own creed to respond to this “opportunity”? Recently, an article was published about the Seattle Public Library pioneering such programs. I have also seen publicity about the free supply of Narcan, an emergency opioid overdose medicine, which will available for public libraries. But these programs – and the library’s place in context with the problem of homelessness – stir mixed feelings both among library professionals and the public.

The most consistent complaint I receive in the libraries where I work relates to individuals perceived as experiencing homelessness. If the smell is excessive, we can ask the patron to leave – however, when I encounter a woman missing a leg falling asleep on her crutches and reeking of urine, how can I even begin a conversation about hygiene when that is obviously the least of her worries? If they have too many bags, we can request the patron tidy and condense their belongings – but when everything someone owns in the world is bundled up and portable, of course they take it personally when yet another someone harasses them for “taking up space.” These examples only capture when the complaints are specific – and usually, they are not. The most frequent complaints are just about the atmosphere in the library due to the large presence of this population, and how it makes patrons uncomfortable.

Yelling is not infrequent in the libraries where I work – often filled with abusive language. In the restrooms, it is not unheard of to witness individuals indecently exposing themselves to bathe at the sinks or lighting up improvised crack pipes in the stalls. My coworker walked up to someone out on the library floor, oddly facing the wall….the person turned and my coworker saw a hypodermic needle sticking out of their arm. A man sitting at one of our tables with his son had someone randomly punch him in the face. Drug dealers and sex workers frequently operate out in the parking lot or by the front doors of the library as families walk by, on their way to story time. Once I had a person return a woman’s car keys only to confess to her that they had “found” them with the intent originally to steal her vehicle. She was with a group of very young children – so when she looked me in the eye and told me she’d never come back to the library again because she felt unsafe, I could only nod. These incidents do not happen constantly – but they do occur with enough regularity and each incident is traumatic enough to make a lasting impression. An impression that scares well-behaved visitors away, regardless of their housing situation.

And herein lies part of the dilemma. Public libraries are working hard to keep themselves valuable and relevant to the communities they serve. But are library staff qualified to do dual-duty as social workers? And should we have to be? One moment we’re helping a patron access research databases with peer-reviewed journals on the topic of cancer research, the next we’re dialing 911 because a patron who reeks of alcohol and urine has passed out at a computer. These are two quite extreme ends of the spectrum of services that library staff are expected to daily provide.

The other part of the dilemma is exploring why there aren’t other, existing resources in the community to respond to the issues of homelessness that come into the library. Where are the comfortable day shelters with the necessary resources that individuals experiencing homelessness seek? Where are the appropriately trained social workers to raise awareness about addiction rehabilitation programs or mental health care?  Why do we have to invite community resources into library spaces so they have somewhere to connect with populations who struggle with homelessness? Why can’t these individuals experiencing homelessness get the assistance that supposedly exists, the support that they desperately need – in or out of the library?

The truth is that the struggle of homelessness has much deeper roots (and implications) than what libraries are equipped to address. In confronting this epidemic communities too often focus on treating the symptoms rather than the sickness. We library workers find the struggle of homelessness in our laps simply because our doors are open and our offerings comfortable. And while our housed patrons may get frustrated and derisively call public libraries “homeless shelters,” what are the equally-accessible and welcoming alternatives?

Ideally, I see libraries advocating for community programs to assist individuals who struggle with homelessness, addiction, and mental illness rather than trying to take on the challenge of developing those resources ourselves. Libraries already struggle for funding simply to continue the programs we already offer.

The bottom line is that there are no easy answers, as the current situation demonstrates. Especially as the role of modern libraries continues to flex and adapt to community needs, I will eagerly continue to add my voice to the ongoing conversation – including, making room to be wrong if  the library’s role continues to grow in response to the needs of homelessness.


note: all examples of behaviors I have cited are based on real incidents reported by either patrons, staff, or that I have witnessed personally.