Every year in the United States, between 1.3 and 1.7 million youth, ages 12 to 24, experience homelessness. Up to 40% of these young people identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer/questioning (LGBTQ). The LAMBDA (Library Anchor Models Bridging Diversity Achievements) IMLS-funded pilot grant is now in its third and final year in working with public libraries on addressing LGBTQ youth homelessness. This grant has provided funds for training workshops, a website (LAMBDA.sis.utk.edu), a webinar (http://lambda.sis.utk.edu/node/36) and a Summit. Throughout these three years we’ve worked with San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), San Diego County Library (SDCL), Seattle Public Library (SPL) and two regional libraries in east Tennessee, Ocoee and Clinch River. The face-to-face trainings for library staff have included in-depth information about how to create welcoming and supportive library environments for these young people.

Building Bridges

We end our final grant year with a Summit at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville on March 9, 2016. This Summit will be live-streamed, so those who are unable to attend in person can still participate in the conversation. The Summit brings together service providers, library staff and all others who are interested in working together to address youth homelessness. There will be four keynote speakers, representing both social services and public libraries. These speakers are:

Jama Shelton, Deputy Executive Director, True Colors Fund, NYC

Pamela Sheffer, Program Director, Just Us, Nashville

Kristy Gale, Teen Librarian, Seattle Public Library

Hayden Bass, Outreach Program Manager, Seattle Public Library

The goal of the Summit to bring together practitioners in both fields, as well as any others who are interested in creating solutions to this critical issue.

As I look back over the three years of this grant, I realize how much I’ve learned about the role of public libraries in addressing youth homelessness. Because this is a pilot project, there has been an opportunity to experiment with the creation and delivery of the training materials, develop a useful website, work with community partners and receive honest and relevant feedback. Addressing homelessness in libraries is never a simple task. Stereotypes of both librarians and those experiencing homelessness can create barriers to communication and service. Expectations on both sides can be low. But the power of bringing people together, to ask and answer questions, to come up with shared solutions, is incredible.

An example of this was the afternoon of one of the staff trainings. The morning was spent reviewing information about LGBTQ youth homelessness, with a goal of providing basic facts about their lives. In the afternoon, a panel of youth and service providers offered personal reflections and concrete suggestions to an audience of local library staff, service providers and community members. Because this was held in a branch library, library patrons were easily able to attend. Each panelist talked briefly about their work or their lives and then offered insights and suggestions to library staff. The audience questions were thoughtful and the panelist answers were honest. There were discussions about a range of topics, including: the impact of security guards in uniforms on the comfort level of the youth as they entered the library; the importance of relevant collections and what those look like; suggestions for addressing library patrons who fall asleep in libraries and why they do; and how and why partnerships matter. At one point, one of the library staff in the audience asked about rainbow flags or other visual indicators in the library. Would that make a difference? she asked. One of the youth panelists gave her a warm and heartfelt smile and answered simply, “Honestly? That would be wonderful.”

It has been moments like these that make this work so rewarding – where communication is clear and direct, concern is real and there is a genuine sense of shared community. It has been moving to be part of these conversations and enlightening to hear and see the issues that come up and the concerns of the service providers, the youth and the library staff.

As we move toward the final months of the grant, I find myself acutely aware of the impact of homelessness and poverty on our communities. As library staff, we can commit to educating ourselves, as well as the public we serve. We can seek opportunities to address the daily challenges of being unstably housed, while simultaneously looking for ways to redress power imbalances both locally and federally. These young people need not only the tools and the access we can provide to help them move from the streets to stable housing, they also need a society that supports who they are. Libraries can be allies in this process. We can do this.

Julie Winkelstein is a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. 

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