A New Trend? Homeless Counselors At Public Libraries

A NEW TREND? HOMELESS COUNSELORS AT PUBLIC LIBRARIES
Among the many roles assumed by public libraries, there’s one that can be problematic than the others: the library as a de facto day shelter for homeless people. Washington DC’s downtown’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library attracts many such patrons, and Jean Badalamenti understands why.
“The city drops folks from three shelters off here every morning and picks them up in the evening,” said Badalamenti, a social worker who in May became the D.C. Public Library’s first health and human services coordinator. “The library’s a great place for anybody to spend the day. You get access to computers, look for jobs, connect with your family and friends on Facebook and e-mail, and do lots of creative things.”
Libraries in other cities have addressed homelessness in various ways. Philadelphia has a cafe and Seattle a coffee cart run by workers who were previously homeless; Dallas produces podcasts of interviews with its homeless regulars. But as far as Badalamenti knows, D.C. is only the second U.S. city to hire a library social worker, following San Francisco.
“I really was brought on to figure out how the library can engage more disenfranchised populations in the city,” she said. “And make connections with other organizations to help provide programming.”
Badalamenti noted there are homeless “hot spots” throughout the system, as there are in most cities. One of her tasks is introducing the issue to the approximately 100 new staffers hired last year when the library system expanded its hours. “We are helping them understand what people experience when they’re homeless. Just a sort of sensitivity training, but hopefully we’ll be doing some other kinds of training, even around de-escalation (identifying folks who might be in a crisis), so the library can respond and be helpful.
The library has just begun a staff survey about interaction with patrons who might be homeless, Badalamenti said. “How’s it impacting your day? What do you need so that you can do your job and be helpful to these folks — and every single other customer that comes through the door?”

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