Beginning in November 2022, Moose Jaw Public Library staff took an online course specifically designed for librarians — in fact, the book the training is based on is called The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness (2018).
The training is offered through www.homelesstraining.com, the website of Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness author Ryan Dowd, who spent decades managing a large shelter near Chicago. He wrote the book for anyone who needs or wants to learn how to safely and empathetically interact with people who are housing insecure.
The initial request for the guide came from librarians, hence the title, but Dowd intended the book to be useful on a broader scale.
“I recommend anybody to do that training online, or to read his book,” said Christina Hinds at the Moose Jaw Public Library (MJPL). Hinds has made it part of her mission as a librarian to help unhoused people, but noted everyone can benefit from learning more.
“You don’t have to be a librarian, (the training) is perfect for anybody,” she added.
The core training focuses on understanding the experience of someone without safe housing, teaching alternatives to punishment, engaging with people so that rules become shared rather than imposed, and offering useful tools and strategies for interaction.
Hinds noted that public libraries have always had to balance between being an education centre and a community centre, with the community centre side naturally taking precedence in times of economic hardship.
Enabling free access to computers, books, games, and all the other benefits of education and connection is only the most obvious function of a library. It is important, but libraries are also safe spaces, with staff whose job is to help their patrons. Libraries are warm and comfortable and have a default open-door policy.
That makes them a natural gathering point for people with nowhere else to go — especially when the weather turns deadly.
“It’s a place where anyone can come. It’s a welcoming centre, people can read books, they can hang out, they can just talk,” Hinds explained. “There’s a group of unhoused people that usually come to the library just to talk, like about how they’re going to spend the night, or what they’re going to do today.”
Interacting with unhoused people
Many people who lack secure housing can keep up regular appearances: They go to work, do their laundry, have at least some access to hygienic facilities, and even maintain their phone, car, government identification, and tax records.
Others live on the fringes of society because they are unable to manage their lives without help. Drug abuse disorders, mental illnesses, disabilities, trauma, and injury all reduce a person’s ability to function — or to cleave to social norms that might no longer seem to matter.
“We still have our code of conduct, and if you violate that, then we have guidelines,” Hinds said. Library staff cannot allow patrons buying, selling, or using illegal drugs, for example, or whose behaviour is aggressive or destructive. They don't like banning individuals, but they do what they have to to protect the good of the many.
A security guard on the MJPL premises has helped staff to keep situations calm and prevent escalations. Nevertheless, without training, experience, understanding, and support, such interactions can devolve into open conflict and hostility.
Hinds said the most important thing to remember is that unhoused people are still people.
“I see them as people, and I treat them as people,” she said. “Everybody should be treated like a person first. … Smile, and say ‘How are you doing?’ Being polite goes a long way.”
Training from Dowd’s website includes courses on how to:
- Prevent and stop fights safely
- Back up a co-worker during a crisis
- Safely ask someone to leave
- Interact more efficiently with police
- Respond to prejudicial comments from other patrons
Hinds said taking Dowd’s course opened her eyes to her own biases, which has helped to be less judgemental and increased her desire to contribute to solutions for people who lack reliable safe shelter. She also has more confidence and feels less nervous in her interactions with library patrons.
By educating staff and volunteers, organizations can increase their overall empathy, and thus reduce the instinctive “us/them” divide that many people feel when they encounter others who are very different.