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How should libraries handle the homeless?

Libraries and the homeless go together like “ actually, it’s hard to say, because the relationship between the two is constantly changing, and differs from city to city, system to system, and even branch to branch.

A story in The Detroit News highlights some of the realities of that relationship:

Walk inside the Skillman Branch of the Detroit Library adjacent to Campus Martius any weekday, and you’ll be awestruck by the stunning masonry work, the line of 24 computers hooked up to Internet access and the librarians armed with disinfectant, several times an hour spraying the tables and chairs inhabited by the homeless who reside there most of the day.

The battle between book-using patrons and the homeless heats up during the winter months as libraries across Metro Detroit offer free warm havens with bathrooms, Internet access and reading material.

Across Metro Detroit, libraries function as cooling centers when it’s too hot and warming centers when it’s cold, resource centers to find out about shelters and other programming, and an online portal with which to apply for Social Security, income tax refunds and other benefits that branches of government offer online.

Libraries have always been tolerant of all users, but a variety of measures “ from metal detectors to more stringent security guards to case-by-case personal hygiene policies “ are being put in place to keep traditional patrons and the homeless happy.

The tensions, though, may be more about perception than reality as libraries look at the homeless as another segment of the population they serve, and an important one at that.

For a Canadian perspective on the topic, see this Q&Q story from 1999. (subscription req’d)