22 May 2019

Your Local Library: A space for Everyone (Library Services for homeless people, refugees and asylum seekers)

Libraries are for Everyone. (New York Public Libraries)
Guest post by Sheila Kelly. Sheila is a Divisional Librarian working in Dublin City Libraries. Through her work in branch libraries across the city,  she has developed a strong  professional commitment to equality and inclusion, and evidenced the impact of public libraries on marginalised and disadvantaged groups

Homelessness Services Background
The Dublin Homeless Region Executive, the authority responsible for housing in the Dublin region, provided me with contacts for hostels, hubs and hotels. These were mainly Development Managers who work for homeless charities such as Focus Ireland, Respond, Peter Mc Verry Trust, Dublin Simon, Depaul and the Salvation Army. I had the opportunity to visit some hubs and set in place a framework to ensure that homeless people had access to our library services. I’d like to share my thoughts and experiences.

People living in homeless accommodation are not a homogeneous group… homeless people are families and children.
Women’s homelessness and family homelessness is a new and devastating phenomenon. Children are being born into homeless accommodation; small and older children share rooms; young people have no study space and parents have no privacy. Parents must be in constant charge of their children and no visitors are allowed.

Many people, particularly fathers go to work from homeless accommodation.  During my visits and discussions, I came to realise that some accommodations had changes in service or development managers and were managed by a hotel manager solely. While this ensured adequate meals and good hygiene, these are far from what we would call ‘home’.

These are heart breaking scenarios and we had to set our parameters and focus on what is our remit – that is to provide a library service to everyone equally.

Thoughts on equity in library service provision 
Initially I identified hostels and hubs and linked them to local branch libraries. People living in the hubs were offered a block loan; advised of contact persons in the local library; library tours were arranged for Development Managers, individuals and families.  Focus Ireland’s Family Homeless Action Team Leaders were briefed on library services available for people accessing emergency accommodation.

And then I thought “that’s that..sorted” … until, through my visits and discussions I came to understand that hidden barriers existed for homeless people. We automatically assume educational and cultural barriers to library usage, but increasingly for homeless people the barriers are circumstantial and problems of loneliness, isolation and de-skilling prevail.

With the greatest respect for people’s privacy and confidentiality I learned that individuals living in homeless accommodations may lose life (home-making) skills- meals are arranged, rooms cleaned, financial and independent decision making opportunities are eradicated. However, individuals are expected to source suitable accommodation for themselves and their families.

In public libraries we say everyone is equally entitled to a free library service. We need to progress this to include the notion of equity- a notion involving fairness and impartiality. In an “equal” system everyone is given the same library service; in an “equitable” library service people are given the service based on the eradication of existing barriers and supporting individual’s needs.

Library Service: Our Aims and Focus
Our aim in Dublin City Libraries was to offer individuals and families living in supported temporary accommodation the opportunity to use our library services in the same way that everyone else does. Our focus was not that homelessness made people ‘different’- our philosophy is that homelessness makes no difference in our branch libraries. We sought to provide a robust, sustainable and easily resourced framework that would accommodate transient families, staff, and changes in homeless services provision.

In terms of equity in library service provision it became glaringly obvious that our membership rules, requiring proof of home address, were a distinct barrier for homeless people. We introduced easy membership, accepting different forms of proof e.g. letters form the Dublin Homeless Region Executive, Homeless Charities Development Managers, Hostel, Hotel or Hub managers etc.

Targeting Services
Hubs, hostels and hotels vary and some specific interventions were put in place. A library Open Day is planned for immigrant families who want to integrate in their community, kinder boxes were provided to two hubs, and we plan to lend tablets (particularly for library eResources) in the future. We offer one storytelling session to introduce the library if this can be made available in the hub.
We have collaborated with one local area partnership to deliver a specific Storytime project to encourage and help parents read to their children. This will take place in a hotel where families are particularly isolated.

We targeted two Integration centres- one already has links with the local library. The second one required a greater intervention. We designed and printed a leaflet inviting residents to join the library which included a map of how to walk to the library. These leaflets were placed under bedroom doors.

Challenges
Hostels can be difficult to manage and reach as individuals may be isolated or have mental health difficulties. One hostel is successfully linked to one library and residents have joined up independently.  Management of hubs can be sporadic and dependent on the homeless charities involved. Various charities operate in diverse ways and even when Development Managers are assigned there is a quick turnover in staff.

We have to understand that hubs are not group homes- every bedroom door is a family’s front door. Privacy and respect are paramount so any performance indicators can only be anecdotal. We have clear anecdotal evidence from our branches that the numbers of homeless people using the service has increased noticeably.

Location is also problematic depending on hub and library locations and access to public transport.

Learning
It is a privilege to work on this project which I believe reflects the heartbeat of the profession of public librarianship. It allows us reach those who need us most- the newly arrived immigrant, the young teenager studying for Leaving Cert on a hotel bedroom floor, or the newly registered homeless father. There are serious complexities involved in reaching people in homeless accommodation and as always the development of good communication channels is paramount. We need to stop talking to ourselves! We need to promote our libraries using clear informal language. We need to simply say “you are welcome here” and loose the information overload. Once those (so) marginalised people come through our library doors we can be confident they will get the best service, the best welcome, the best sense of belonging as we vitalise our professional conduct, activate our public service equality ethos and reach those who need us most. To that end I would like to thank the wonderful Dublin City Libraries staff I work with, for their enthusiasm, professional commitment and excellence in service delivery. I am reminded of Maya Angelou who said:

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned”

A bit like our libraries then….




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