U.S. libraries become front line in fight against homelessness

Thu Jul 17, 2014 7:15am EDT
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By Ian Simpson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - George Brown, a homeless man in Washington, has a simple answer when asked how often he uses a public library.

"Always. I have nowhere else to go," Brown, 65, said outside the U.S. capital's modernist central library after a morning reading sociology books. "When it's hot, you come here to stay out of the heat. When it's cold, you come here to stay out of the cold."

Brown is among the hundreds of thousands of homeless people who have put the almost 9,000 U.S. public libraries, the most of any country in the world, in the forefront of the battle against homelessness.

Moving beyond their old-fashioned image as book custodians where librarians shush people for talking too loud, libraries have evolved to serve as community centers, staffed with social workers and offering programs from meals to job counseling.

Homelessness is an especially acute issue for libraries as the United States slowly emerges from the 2007-2009 recession and deals with stubborn poverty, experts said.

Libraries are magnets for the homeless since they are public, free, centrally located and quiet. They also are safe, a major draw given that 337 homeless people have been killed in hate crimes in the last 15 years, according to the National Coalition for the Homeless.

"(Libraries) are on the front line whether they want to or not," said Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty, an advocacy group.

The upturn in homeless outreach is part of an overall 47 percent increase in library programs from 2004 to 2011, according to a June report by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.   Continued...

A man sits on downtown Los Angeles' Skid Row, March 6, 2013. REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson