r-HOMELESS-YOUTH-large570This is the first in a three part series on serving homeless youth in libraries. We invite questions, ideas, and comments for the discussion to continue on this very important topic.

When this month’s VOYA issue arrived, I was excited to find the article on teen homelessness: When the Library Is the Only Place That You Have to Go: Homeless Teens and Libraries by Rebecca Hill. And it doesn’t disappoint. (Check out digital VOYA on the right sidebar to read the full text of the article). Hill indicates that 1.35 million homeless children, a staggering number, live in the U.S. today. She goes on to outline how several libraries address the homeless patron issue and mentions both applicable national programs and local collaborations that have collaborated with libraries to tackle issues surrounding teen homelessnessness.

How do you serve homeless youth at your library?

Sometimes we may not even know who the homeless teens are in our library. It’s not information they likely want to broadcast nor do they necessarily show any obvious outward signs of being without a home such as carrying bags of belongings around. Individual teens’ situations vastly differ. A teen might be sleeping in a shelter, living on the streets or staying friends or relatives in a temporary situation. All will have a different level of access to resources and varying needs. As Hill rightly points out, “working with homeless needs is not a one-size-fits-all problem.”

While homeless teens are unique and each situation differs, a few things to keep in mind are that there is a relationship between being homeless and academic success. Everything from dropping out of school to being behind in grade level is shown to be linked according to the National Coalition for the Homeless. Just like 20-40% of homeless youth are GLBT. These correlations ‘ reveal an area where we can partner with other organizations in the community. By being a GLBT-friendly and welcoming place with a range of resources to share, we can be help homeless teens and connect them with much-needed services.

Most of us probably already have a list of local and national phone numbers or URLs available to help bridge the gap for teens that need the information. If not, start reaching out to those community organizations that serve homeless teens and develop a helpful list of crisis numbers, shelters, food pantries, and more for youth. Many umbrella agencies like United Way‘ have such a list, but it might not necessarily be customized for teens. If it doesn’t spotlight what teens need, develop a different one highlighting the age-appropriate resources. Librarian Robin Vittek, who is cited in the VOYA article and active in library partnerships with this population, suggests cultivating “the shelters in your neighborhood” as well as ‘ “the youth liaison at your local public school.” I would also take it one step further and suggest asking other organizations’ staff how they work to empower youth. It could be a factor in determining how and if you want to partner with this particular organization. While the number of shelters might be limited, but it can give you some information as to the kind of program or approach each shelter has and how you can leverage that as a partner organization.

Talk to your co-workers and administration. Maybe the library is helping out the homeless in more ways than you knows. Before I put together this post, I did a mental inventory of my own library and the connections we’ve made or are in progress with helping serve homeless teens and didn’t realize how much it is we really do:

  • Systemwide pay down your fines program called Project Payoff. A donated soup can (vegetables welcome too) can get teens and tweens into the program and then the food gets sent to a local pantry that makes it available for those in need.
  • Children’s Theatre which is a partner with the library, gives tickets to performances at select youth shelters
  • Community service projects such as coat drives
  • Taking steps to become a recognized Safe Place which is a youth runaway prevention program
  • Outreach for library programming to teens at local shelters

Also, don’t underestimate your co-workers as an “inside” resource! While most of us aren’t librarians and trained social workers, some of us have logged some volunteer hours and would be on a first-name basis with the youth liaisons at shelters. Speaking personally, I’ve worked at homeless shelters for close to twenty years in various cities. It’s definitely fulfilling to see homeless teens who are in a temporary situation at the shelter can continue to go to the library after they are in a more stable and permanent situation. Circumstances change and things do get better,. In the meantime, libraries can’ definitely’ do our part in lending a hand.

Here are some more resources to help get started:
Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement
ALA Office for Literacy and Outreach Services (OLOS) and the Social Responsibilities Round Table (SRRT). Includes a short but powerful section about Library Services to Young People in Transition which talks about the importance of keeping the library a safe and inviting place.

ALA Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force (HHPTF)
Fosters greater awareness of the dimensions, causes, and ways to end hunger, homelessness, and poverty.

McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act
Federal response to homelessness that helps provide support to children without a fixed residence such as transportation to and from school.

National Coalition for the Homeless
National network of people who are committed to preventing and ending homelessness and ensuring those who are homeless that their needs are met and civil rights protected.

About Kelly Czarnecki

Kelly Czarnecki is a Teen Librarian at ImaginOn with the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library. She is a member of the YALSA blog advisory board.

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