Libraries Serve Homeless and Low-Income Users

How Public Libraries Welcome Them

Do you know that more than half a million Americans go homeless on any given night and that this represents 0.2% of the U.S. population? Or that, of these people, 65% are in shelters while 35% remain on the streets?

If you want to know more about this “hidden” crisis in the U.S., ask someone who works at a public library.

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When it comes to people who are in homeless or low-income situations, public libraries — especially those in urban areas — tread a thin line. On the one hand, they have dedicated themselves to treating all patrons with respect and dignity. But on the other, those struggling often bring challenges that most libraries and their staff are not equipped to handle.

Still, public libraries and the many and varied people working there often reach out to their homeless and low-income visitors to help them find food, clothing, shelter —along with a friendly, welcoming environment. This essay will look at how they do it and the resulting outcomes.

What Characterizes Homeless and Low-Income Populations?

According to, the causes of homelessness can’t be broken into specific categories. Instead, it is an amalgam of factors that include:

  • Lack of affordable housing and the limited scale of housing assistance programs.
  • Hourly wages being too low for people to afford housing in many places.
  • Diminished employment opportunities.
  • Declining availability of public assistance.
  • Absence of affordable healthcare.
  • Domestic violence.
  • Mental illness.
  • Addiction (especially for the poor and addicted).

But couldn’t one of these situations befall any of us, at any time? What if you have a good job but suddenly find yourself let go or laid off? What if you fall ill or become disabled and can’t find healthcare coverage to pay for hospitalization, medications, or adaptive equipment?

The next time you see people who appear to be down on their luck napping on library furniture or bathing in the restrooms, imagine yourself in one or more of the above circumstances. Then, offer some kind words to acknowledge them and their right to use the library, just like anyone else.

Libraries and People Who Lack Vital Resources

Public libraries are funded mainly by local governments, sometimes supplemented by private donations and state and federal government grants. An annual survey for FY 2019 showed that public libraries spent an average of $44.88 per person within their coverage area.

This amount isn’t much once you deduct staff salaries, new and replacement technologies, paper and online books and periodical subscriptions, public events, and other expenses. And it leaves little to no funding to offer everyday amenities to those who can’t afford them otherwise. But is this really public libraries’ responsibility?

One ambitious project to address some of these needs was a 2016 study of the social determinants of health, involving a partnership between the University of Pennsylvania and the 54-branch Free Library of Philadelphia. Its findings spoke volumes about the role of urban libraries and how they serve patrons from different backgrounds and needs — especially relative to libraries’ role in public health. The study found that public libraries:

  • Address social determinants of health.
  • Are a safety net for vulnerable populations.
  • Are committed to public service.

In concluding, the authors point out that, “While health has not historically been at the center of their missions, libraries occupy a unique place in public life, making them powerful partners for building a culture of health.” A culture of health, writ large, can entail anything from trust in the library staff to the information they share to local referrals for even more help.

Bringing the Outside In

Few urban public libraries have achieved the Philadelphia Free Library’s scale in terms of helping vulnerable populations. Still, you might be surprised to learn what many actually are doing to help.

Public libraries achieve a lot for patrons in need by collaborating with various local agencies and organizations to direct low-income and homeless patrons to services beyond the library’s resources and purview. One group of scholars describes this position as a “meso-level resource.” An example of this is the Rochester (New York) Public Library System, with ten branches throughout the city of just over 200,000 residents (not counting the extensive metro).

Rochester faces many poverty and related challenges besides just homelessness and low income. But the public library’s Central Branch supports a collaborative partnership called the Library Resources Outreach Center (LROC) between the the library network and local human services agencies.

Staffed by employees and volunteers from relevant organizations, LROC connects patrons to the following services and resources:

  • Housing
  • Food
  • Clothing
  • Shelter
  • Income
  • Case management
  • Medical care
  • Legal assistance
  • Employment

The Center “offers services to the homeless, those in danger of becoming homeless, and those in need of access to various resources,” all free of access barriers.

Solutions From Across the Country

Public libraries are among a handful of institutions where people facing personal and community difficulties can turn for help, confident that the library staff won’t judge, exploit, or treat them as unwelcome visitors.

Still, the problems experienced by very low-income library patrons are seldom resolved without conflict — whether among more affluent library patrons and their homeless counterparts or between public libraries and the larger communities that house them.

As of 2016, the Pew Trust was following public libraries in cities like the District of Columbia, Dallas, Salt Lake City, and Denver. These locales were in the foreground for redesigning their larger libraries to do double-duty serving the needs of both the homeless and other patrons.

Would you believe that some cities, such as Denver, Seattle, and Alexandria, VA, have gone so far as to turn old shopping malls into living spaces for the homeless and others in need of housing? Perhaps, in the future, instead of building new libraries, existing ones seeking new spaces could co-locate and occupy the larger area in former malls that once contained department stores. Reinvigorated spaces like these could be a win-win for many!