EveryLibrary Interviews Ryan Dowd, Homeless Advocate

EveryLibrary Interviews Ryan Dowd, Homeless Advocate

Ryan Dowd’s name has been popping up a lot in library circles lately. It might be due to the growing popularity of his course on serving the homeless population, or his outstanding new book The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone (ALA Editions, 2018), or simply because the topic of homelessness in our cities is one that affects nearly everyone. As the Executive Director of Hesed House, a large homeless shelter in Aurora, IL, Mr. Dowd has been at the forefront of the struggle to assist the homeless for over two decades. EveryLibrary appreciates that he took time out of his schedule to answer questions posed to him by EveryLibrary Medium Magazine Contributing Editor, Oleg Kagan


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First of all, thank you for taking the time to answer my questions. I’m sure you have plenty to do so I appreciate it. Now, I got some of this from reading your book, but can you tell our readers what your day-to-day life is like as an Executive Director of a large urban homeless shelter?

Some days working at a homeless shelter is like any other job (spreadsheets, meetings, paperwork and emails). Some days it is totally different (calming someone down who is having a panic attack because they just arrived at the shelter for the first time, celebrating a child’s birthday in a homeless shelter, talking to a woman who was sexually assaulted 45 minutes earlier, helping someone move out into their own apartment). Every day is radically different (which is one of the things I like about it so much.

One of my most striking takeaways from your book was the “Top Ten Homeless Myths”, especially #7: “Homelessness can happen to anyone” or as it is more popularly expressed, we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless. Can you elaborate on why that’s a myth and why it’s an especially important one for the public to consider when interacting (or thinking about) the homeless?

It’s interesting that you point that one out. That is one of the most controversial things in the book. My point is this: we say things like “we’re all just one paycheck away from being homeless” as a sign of solidarity with homeless individuals, but it’s not true. Even someone who is one paycheck away from being evicted is not likely to be out on the street if they get evicted. Most people have family or friends that will let them stay in a spare bedroom or couch. Those “relational resources” serve as a pretty effective substitute for “financial resources.” Someone who ends up in a shelter has neither the financial resources to pay for a room nor the relational resources to sleep on someone’s couch. That is a form of poverty that most people will never experience.

I think that distinction is important because most people have a safety net. If things get really really bad they can always go crash with their parents or siblings or friends. Individuals who end up on the street or in a shelter do not have that most basic safety net.

That makes them FAR more vulnerable than your average person.

My observation is controversial and upsets some people because they think that I’m implying that homeless individuals are fundamentally different and inferior to “normal” people. That isn’t my point at all. My point is that there lack of a relational resource safety net makes them far more vulnerable. That isn’t a value judgment about their worth. It is a factual statement about their situation.

Obviously your work is full of long days and constant emotional stress. What has driven you to persist at it for over two decades?

Everything is intense. The successes are really great and the failures are really bad. Both serve a role in helping our staff continue the work.

When a family moves out and a child gets their own room again after having lived in the shelter a long time, that is something really special to watch. You get a high for days.

When someone passes away at a young age or experiences violence (because it is dangerous to be homeless), then we are reminded that the stakes are high and what we do really really matters. When you know that what you do saves lives, the “rough” days aren’t so bad.

Let’s change directions — When, how, and why did you start working with libraries?

The director of our local library asked me to speak at a mini-conference of area library directors. I jotted down some notes on a napkin and gave a little speech. I got several requests to do trainings at individual libraries. I didn’t think I had much to contribute, so I had an intern film me while I gave my speech again (from my napkin notes) and then we threw it up on Youtube.

Then when a librarian would call and ask me to come train their staff, I would just give them the link to the YouTube video (It’s still available here).

I think I gave the link to five people and then forgot about it.

A few years later I got a call from the ALA wanting to interview me because the video had gone viral.

After that I realized that Librarians were very serious about understanding their homeless patrons better and that I owed them more than a back-of-a-napkin video. I went back and developed a much more expansive training (and ultimately, the book).

The strategies in your book use the concept of empathy-driven enforcement as a foundation for encouraging library patrons experiencing homelessness (and everyone else) to follow the rules. Can you give a quick example from the book (or elsewhere) to demonstrate why empathy-driven enforcement is a good base?

Normally, I have three hours (or 200 pages) to make this point, but I’ll try!

The world has taught us that there is only one way to get people to follow the rules: threaten them with punishment. If you return your book late, you get fined. If you get caught speeding, you get a ticket. If my son breaks curfew, he gets grounded.

The problem is that punishment isn’t very effective on homeless individuals. Think about it: If you’ve lost everything, is a little punishment going to sway your behavior much?

Empathy-driven enforcement is another system for getting people to follow the rules voluntarily. It works on psychological principles of voluntary compliance. Basically, you create the conditions where people naturally follow the rules (and, thus, you don’t have to threaten them with punishment).

Imagine this: I’m a homeless guy who is a little loud in your library and you come up and tell me you’ll call the police on me if I don’t quiet down. First off, the police don’t worry me as much as they do most people because I get the police called on me all the time. Second, it backfires often because now I feel like you are treating me unfairly, and so I have a right to “teach you a thing or two.”

Imagine this instead: When I’m too loud, you say “Good morning, my name is John. What’s your name?” and then you shake my hand. You are showing me a level of respect that no one has shown me in weeks or months. If you then ask me to lower my volume a little bit, I am more than happy to do so because you treated me with a level of human dignity I have not experienced in a while.

It can be counterintuitive, but treating people with human dignity is the most effective way to get them to follow the rules.

Your book is aimed at helping librarians and library workers, but expanding on that, do you have any advice or strategies for library patrons who might be anxious or afraid of sharing the library with those experiencing homelessness?

Our country does a really good job at “economic apartheid.” We do a great job of keeping the poor away from the middle-class and wealthy. Middle-class Americans have very few opportunities to interact with poor people.

There is, though, one building in a community where all three socio-economic groups come together in one common space. Yup, the public library!

That means two things:

  1. Libraries are essential for our democracy because we need to provide spaces for different socio-economic groups to meet.
  2. There is a lot of room for conflict. If middle-class Americans don’t see homeless people anywhere else except the library, they are going to be uncomfortable around them.

When librarians get non-homeless patrons complaining about homeless patrons, I advise a two-pronged response:

  1. Make it clear that you take seriously the library’s responsibility to serve ALL community members regardless of their socio-economic status.
  2. Make it clear that you address problematic behavior from all patrons, regardless of their socioeconomic status.

A non-homeless person has a right to be safe in the library. That is a legitimate request.

They don’t, though, have a right to banish poverty from public space because it makes them feel uncomfortable (because they don’t see it anywhere else).

The distinction between safety and discomfort is key.

One of your tools (“The Robin Williams”) encourages librarians to appreciate the sense of humor of their homeless patrons. You even gave 3 example jokes! Why is sense of humor such an important part of your approach, and have you heard any good ones lately?

Being homeless is boring. Most entertainment costs money (movie tickets, Netflix account, etc.). A few guys sitting around telling jokes and stories, though, is totally free.

Humor is also a great builder of relationship, and homeless individuals value relationships.

Okay, a relative just had surgery and I’ve spent a lot of time in hospitals recently with nurses, so I have a nursing joke. I’m not sure if you can print it or not, but here goes: Do you know the difference between an oral and rectal thermometer? The taste.

Do you feel like libraries are moving in the right direction in serving our homeless patrons? Have you noticed any changes since you first started working with libraries?

Absolutely! More libraries are talking about their homeless patrons. I also get more questions about “how can I help our homeless patrons” or “how can we do special programming for our homeless patrons” than I used to.

Before we conclude, aside from your own website (homelesslibrary.com) and Ruby Payne’s work on the “Culture of Poverty”. Where would you steer our readers who would like to learn more about homelessness?

Don’t go read about homelessness. Instead, go strike up a conversation with a homeless guy in the library. Every human being craves to tell their story, and homeless people probably more than most (because so few people are willing to listen).

Thank you again for taking the time to answer my questions. Did you have anything else you wanted to add (perhaps something about your experiences sleeping in the shelter)?

Ummm… no… I’m struggling to think of anything to say about sleeping in a shelter that I didn’t put in the book. It’s loud/smelly/hot/uncomfortable. I’ve done it at Hesed House and outside. I’ve not done it at another shelter, but I plan to.