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Community resources and spaces should not exclude certain members: How libraries help homeless people

Photo courtesy of Unsplash/Matthew Feeney.

Like most other college students trying to find a quiet place to study and work, I am no stranger to libraries. On campus or at home, I can be found living inside a library. Besides the fact that I work in the University library as a Writing Center tutor, libraries have always felt like a safe, magical place. When I was young, going to my local library was one of the greatest things to happen to me. My mother and I would bring our tote bags with us, and take out as many books as was permitted. Now, as a college student, libraries are still a place of happiness, but they have also proven to be crucial to my academics. While libraries’ online websites make resources more accessible, nothing beats sitting in a quiet building while surrounded by stacks. Aside from the perfume allure of the thousands of books that are housed, libraries provide useful resources such as free internet access computers, databases, study rooms, and much more. Libraries also provide tutoring services, free ebook and audiobook databases, learning programs, and other educational support for members of their community.

With so many different resources and activities provided by public libraries, it is no wonder that they feel like such inviting, welcoming places. Nobody would bat an eye at the thought of teenagers quietly hanging out in the corner, children exploring the shelves to look for books, or adults using the computers to play games or browse social media. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for homeless people trying to access libraries. 

A Reddit post published by a now-deleted account summarizes one of many arguments made by people trying to bar homeless people from entering libraries. The post states, “I disagree, mostly because I feel that the function of libraries is not to be a shelter or a hangout for anyone, but rather a place people go to for information, reading, and unfortunately for looking at Facebook for hours every day.” Looking at and framing libraries as a place strictly for study undermines the attempts that libraries across the nation have made to foster unity within their communities. Library programs and events are meant to encourage community engagement and allow people to feel at home. Libraries exist to serve the public and adapt to what a community may need. This quoted statement is reductive to the communal services that libraries provide, and it especially overlooks the diverse people who rely on libraries for resources that they might not regularly have access to.

Impoverished and homeless people who do not have reliable access to temperature-appropriate environments, books, internet access, water and restrooms view libraries as a safe haven. An article published by BookRiot explains the value of libraries for the homeless population, explaining how most shelters leave homeless people who rely on them to figure out what to do during the day. The article said, “While 61% of unhoused people spend the night in sheltered accommodation, many shelters do not provide daytime accommodation.” This poses a problem during extreme weather conditions. Additionally, without the titles of a “homeless shelter,” libraries provide a sense of humanity and comfort to people plagued with misfortune and hardship. The BookRiot article said, “…library remains the only humanizing place left where they can experience some respite from their hardships.” An article published by The Cap Times states, “Ask why they hang out at the library, and they’ll talk about comfort. It’s warm. It’s dry. There are public restrooms. But the library offers much more. ‘They’ve got books and magazines and music. I love the library’, “enthuses one young woman.” Libraries act as a chance for normalcy. This is something that people who have never experienced homelessness will never understand, making it easy to take for granted the impact and importance that libraries have.

Something else to consider within this conversation is the dehumanization of  people impacted by homelessness. Homeless people are often unwelcome in public spaces because they are not seen as members of the community. The prevalence of homelessness and the way homeless people are treated often speak volumes about a specific community. This is why, when talking about how libraries serve the community, it is important to remember that a community is not cherry-picked.

Libraries are indeed places where people go to look up information and read, but they are also valuable places for a community to flourish and survive. Libraries not only foster community, but they also provide reliable resources for people who need them. Rather than trying to kick homeless people out, we should instead seek to improve the larger issue at hand. If people rely on and seek out places such as libraries to meet their needs, restricting access to them will not help. Instead, more public services and resources should be available to improve and provide for all members of a community, even those who are homeless.

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Kaylee Salazar
Kaylee Salazar, Executive Editor
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