WLA 2009: "Library Services for the Homeless Population in Wisconsin"

Posted by Lisa Strand on Thursday, October 22, 2009 in WLA Blog Archive
Library Services for the Homeless Population in Wisconsin: Findings of a Study
Timothy Blomquist, UW-Milwaukee SOIS
  • Sponsored by WLA Outreach Services Section
  • Research for his Masters thesis
  • Conducted survey April-May 2008
  • 388 public libraries - sent survey
  • 260 responses - 67% response rate, 1 invalid
  • 16 questions
  • questionnaire - had definitions
  • He got the impression that people aren't aware of the issues


  • 2.5-3.5 million people homeless annually (in U.S.) - 39% children
  • 700,000-2 million each night
  • 12 million have experienced homelessness at some point (7%+ of population)
  • 600,000 families with 1.35 million children experience homelessness each year
  • Definitions vary - without permanent or adequate shelter
  • Really, it's not just lacking a place to sleep - lacking storage for belongings, pulled away from friends/ family/ school/ support
  • WI ServicePoint Homeless Management Information System
  • Causative factors: Veterans, roommate/family conflict, eviction, low/no income, domestic violence, criminal history, addiction, institutional discharge, physical/mental disabilities, can't find affordable housing, disaster, illness, injury, moved to seek work, in transit, denied/delayed/term public assistance
  • Response from small communities = "we don't have homeless," one said "because we don't have apartments"
  • Every county has support system, based in larger population areas; Homeless Emergency Shelter Provider Regions
  • Small towns often don't have best support systems, but libraries can provide simple resources (handouts etc. pointing to shelter)
  • Emergency Shelter Use - 1/1-10/1/09 - 40.1% African-American
  • no stats from privately funded shelters, such as one of largest in Milwaukee
  • 1.3 million children/teens homeless nation-wide; 17,000 in Wisconsin
  • Almost half are turned away from shelters each night because demand exceeds space
  • Information needs = finances, relationships, childcare, literacy, housing, health, employment, education, transportation, public assistance (Hersberger 2001) - similar needs to general public
  • library classification - many rural 73% - factor in why not services or interested in implementing
  • Lack of funds, no need/homeless

Survey Questions

  • Survey Question: would you attend a conference on public library services for the homeless? 15.2% yes, 41.4% undecided, 43% no
  • 11.4% said they had services for the homeless
  • Others said: existing support outside library, never thought of it, lack of funds/staff, lack of outside support/partner, patrons need an ID, other (7.7% - not problem, fear, all services available to all, no one would use it, no apartments, none have contacted us)
  • stereotypes: smell, looks, argumentative, disruptive, sleep inside/outside, drink alcohol, violent, bring in food
  • teenagers can be disruptive, too, but we still serve them
  • libraries are a public space, people come because quiet, warm/cool, comfortable, safe, things to do, job resources, computers
  • Survey Question: Will be offered in future? yes 1.6%, 47.6% undecided
  • What needed to offer? homeless pop/demonstrated need, funds/staff/resources, evaluate/research/identify, training, partner, unsure 2.8%, other 3.6%, info/requests from social service agencies, more space 1.2%
  • As simple as a card/handout with basic info = few resources to do
  • other = update strategic plan, plan for lost/damaged, ID, if problem would identify, what entail showers/lockers?, hire new director
  • one overly negative response, large urban library - shouldn't be a director - we treat all equally - people with many challenges - special services for the homeless"???"
  • those that do have services = 11
  • Survey Question: have you trained staff to handle? = 3
  • Q: Do homeless share status with staff? A: Can't tell who's homeless [but they usually have to give an address which is in their record...]
  • Survey Question: if can't check out, what else: onsite materials, computer/internet, temp card, other ID, need a shelter contact, restricted access (ex: 3 items)
  • online in the library = 8, in and out library = 1
  • Recommend shelter/other referral rather than ID if need such
  • mailing address could include shelters, church, hotel, social service office, etc.
  • maybe only 4 had specialized programs for homeless actually - housing consultation space/promotion
  • would it work to have a union member database so that you can only have full membership at one library?
  • "we're just trying to stay open" - if can provide game night, can print out a flyer
  • Survey Question: actively promote? = 2 [he meant literature at services desk]
  • homeless kit provided by county agency, fliers, newspaper articles, radio, tv, distro to agencies
  • Survey Question: types of requests: housing, employment, other, education/training, literacy, legal. (other: meal programs, ESL, bus schedule, newspapers, trained staff for ref q's)
  • Survey Question: what would it take to change? someone to take the lead, stengthen communication to serive providers, separate room for esl, limit checkouts to halfway houses/abuse shelters as we do for homeless
  • some have homes but no heat/phone/etc.
  • one library says they limit number and size of bags allowed to bring into library
  • one library in a small community - someone will vouch for temporarily homeless

Existing & possible services

  • Some libraries: collections in shelters, children's services, temp cards, computer access, outreach, listing services, cultural programs
  • provide a handout listing local food, health, housing, welfare, legal aid, winter shelter, g.e.d. prep, locations for showers
  • in homeless shelters: reading rooms, programming, films, parenting workshops, storytime, literacy (parents can be working 2-3 jobs, no time to support learning needs of children)
  • take kids to cultural events, museums etc.
  • provide transportation from shelters
  • phone use for homeless needs
  • "The Homeless Guy" Blog http://thehomelessguy.blogspot.com - newsletter - issues, information, advocate
  • Resumes, email, contact other homeless, reaching out, communicating, create community
  • can contact local agencies to know what's available, for referral
  • partners: salvation army, emergency shelter, cots, head start, literacy coalition, health dept, safe and sound, pearls for teen girls, journey house, friends of the community/amigos de la communidad, domestic abuse shelter, food pantries, red cross

In closing

  • libraries are doing good things - just a few were negative
  • transient patrons only there for 1-2 weeks
  • He doesn't think you need a social work background - librarians have breadth of knowledge
  • You do need awareness, understanding, sympathy, non-judgemental attitude
  • Both rural and affluent assume no homeless
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