This is the third in a three-part series on serving homeless youth in libraries. Please leave questions, ideas, and comments for us to continue the discussion of this very important topic.
Serving homeless teens is challenging because the line between librarian and social worker is so thin. We naturally want to help, but our skill set does not (usually) include full knowledge of the social services of our region. Therefore, we can only do what we know, what our supervisors allow, and what doesn’t offend the teen.
Homelessness does not discriminate against social class or region, so I was not too surprised what I recognized signs of poverty and homelessness in a small group of teen “regulars”. Poor hygiene, traveling with large bags filled with personal items, staying in a group with their parents, and visiting the library all day (only leaving the library when the nearby family shelter opened its doors every evening) were all red flags.So the signs were clear. My coworkers confirmed my suspicions and I got right to work on finding a fix, or at least easing their troubles. I spent my own teen years working with my mom at our church food pantry, and my desire to help was overwhelming. What I and others librarians have done to serve homeless teens:
1. I partnered with Mobile Hope, a division of INOVA Hospitals that travels around Loudoun County in an RV providing various services to youth with no questions asked. They hand out backpacks with school supplies in August, coats in winter, and food, shoes, and clothing year-round. I contacted Mobile Hope who provided sandwiches and fresh fruit for the group of teens, who were grateful when I casually asked them if they wanted some food left over from a library meeting. They quickly opened up to me about their situation, and we were able to give them nutritious food throughout the summer.
2. Many homeless and impoverished teens dread weekends, long breaks, and summer because they do not receive the fee/reduced price lunch at school. San Diego County Library, among many others, became lunch distribution centers during such long breaks. Other libraries, such as DC Public Libraries and have hosted lunches in conjunction with their summer reading programs to encourage learning as well during long breaks from school.
3. An ID card with proof of address is often required to get a library card, but teens who cannot sign for themselves are at a disadvantage. Graduate students at the University of North Carolina- Chapel Hill started a lending library at a local shelter, giving teen residents the freedom to read without the worry of having to return library materials in the event they relocate.
What programs have you hosted, or would you host if there were a need? Share your experience with YALSA in the comments below.