Friday, June 15, 2007

Libraries offer more services to homeless

Public libraries, long a daytime sanctuary for homeless people, increasingly are offering services targeted to them.

"The broader mission of the library is a very welcoming one," says Jane Salisbury, supervisor of library outreach services at Multnomah County Library in Portland, Ore.

Libraries are shelters from cold and heat, she says, but homeless people also go there because "people are there to serve them."

Services vary:

•In Washington, D.C., the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library has begun seminars about library resources and health care services for the homeless. The library plans to offer music appreciation and arts classes to homeless patrons.

•Jacksonville Public Library teaches Internet use to homeless job-seekers.

•The Free Library of Philadelphia pays homeless people to work as bathroom attendants at the central library.

•The San Francisco Public Library has two part-time staffers who refer the homeless to housing and mental health agencies.

•The Los Angeles Public Library has a five-day summer camp for homeless children. In July, a magician, mime, musician and storyteller will perform and teach.

•Volunteers take children from homeless shelters to New York Public Library branches for monthly story time sessions.

Daniel Kibler, reference librarian at the Jacksonville Public Library, who teaches the computer course, says his part-time role as a social worker is more challenging and emotional than his usual duties.

Four years ago, Kibler helped a homeless man in his 50s complete an online application for a job at a grocery store. The man didn't know how to use a computer mouse, Kibler says. He left the reference desk to help him four or five times.

"We try to do the best we can with the time we have," he says. "When someone is honestly trying to improve themselves and you don't have time, you feel particularly helpless."

Nancy Huntley, director of the Lincoln Library in Springfield, Ill., says services for the homeless are outside the scope of a librarian's job. "Our role is just to provide books and information," she says.

Accommodating homeless patrons without alienating others can be a challenge, librarians say.

Richard Parker of the Tulsa City-County Library, says visitors have complained about people panhandling, staring or saying inappropriate things to children.

Sanford Berman, founder of the American Library Association's Hunger, Homelessness and Poverty Task Force, says others complain about patrons' grooming. Libraries such as the Dallas Public Library have hygiene rules. Berman says they must be administered evenly.

"That kind of rule should be equally applied to a suburban matron doused in perfume," he says.

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