Almost Home: How Public Libraries Serve Homeless Teenagers

Library offerings for these young people include drop-in card games and supplemental educational services.
Public libraries support homeless teens with offerings from drop-in card games to supplemental educational services. Courtesy of Seattle Public Library

At the Seattle Public Library, young adults, some experiencing homelessness, play a fast-paced card game with staff from a local youth shelter. Courtesy of Seattle Public Library

A STEM program on Bainbridge Island in Washington. A radio podcast anchored by a former homeless young adult in Dallas. A digital photography class in Charlotte, NC. These are a few of the innovative ways that public libraries are providing services to homeless teens.

Young people who are homeless may be hard to spot, because they generally look just like typical teens. But with hundreds of thousands of American youth experiencing homelessness, library services—whether provided in a local branch or in a shelter—can serve as a stable environment and help connect these teenagers to other social services.

“By doing this we are saying that we want to pull them in: ‘We want you to become part of a larger community because you have a voice and a really interesting voice that we want to hear,’” says Julie Winkelstein, a lecturer in the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville and a member of the Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force, created in 1996 by the American Library Association’s (ALA) Social Responsibilities division.

A population at risk

On a given night, the number of homeless children is over 194,300—accounting for one third of all homeless people, according to the National Alliance to End Homelessness. Over a year, as many as 550,000 youth up to age 24 will experience homelessness for at least a week, some 380,000 of them under 18. The National Coalition for the Homeless found that LGBTQ teens account for 20 percent to 40 percent of all homeless youth. Teens in foster care are also at risk for homelessness. Because of their age and experience, teens need more support than adults to avoid chronic homelessness, experts say. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, 71.7 percent of homeless teens report physical and/or sexual abuse. They’re also at greater risk for contracting HIV/AIDS and significant mental health issues.

Laura Hauser, literary services officer of the Dekalb County Public Library (DCPL) in Decatur, GA, has worked with homeless shelters for 18 years through Project Horizon, a program for homeless youth initiated with funding from the Dekalb Library Foundation. She says that these teens carry an “especially unusual burden,” including doing the laundry, caring for younger siblings, and in immigrant families, translating for parents.

In addition, approximately 75 percent have dropped or will drop out of school, as Vikki C. Terrile, director of community library services for the Queens (NY) Library, noted in an Urban Library Journal article. Those in school often have poor attendance and frequently change schools, leading to more missed days because of incomplete records or residency and guardianship requirements. As a result, almost 75 percent perform below grade level in reading, and many don’t have computer or the Internet access for homework and can’t buy school supplies.

National efforts

Notable initiatives to help the broad homeless population include efforts by the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), which partnered with the Department of Health to hire a social worker to support homeless patrons. The San Jose and San Diego Public Libraries also connect these customers to social workers, and the Denver Public Library has offered food to patrons waiting outside in the morning.

When ALA began to address homelessness in 1990, it adopted Policy 61, Library Services for the Poor. While encouraging librarians to educate themselves about poverty, Policy 61 also advocates that libraries remain accessible and useful to low-income citizens. Homelessness dramatically increased during the 2007–09 recession, reaching heights above those of the Great Depression, according to a 2009 report from the National Coalition for the Homeless, and further strained libraries. Outreach programs increased by 47 percent from 2004 to 2011. More than a third of the homeless—37 percent—were families in 2009. Many library users were disconnected young adults—people age 18–24 who were not in school or employed.

The challenges

Maintaining the ALA task force has also been difficult, Winkelstein says. Because of low funding and participation, it has not been able to establish a consistent path to lead libraries on this issue, despite recent conference offerings and webinars reflecting a renewed interest. The tide, however, is turning, Winkelstein believes. “People are going from complaining about homelessness to having something concrete to do,” she says. “I am hearing more positive conversations. Still, it will be a long haul between the willingness and actually changing anti-homeless policies and rules.”

Understanding the history of library services for homeless patrons can shed light on developing efforts, and challenges, to connect with teenagers. While the mission of libraries is to be open to everyone, some systems in cities with large homeless populations instituted anti-odor or anti-panhandling policies meant to address the homeless problem. Instead, they created controversial and logistical nightmares. While librarians want to help, they’re often not trained to do so.

“Librarians are ill equipped to deal with this population, even though they very much want to help,” says Ryan Dowd, former executive director of Hesed House, a homeless shelter program in Aurora, IL. His video “A Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness,” which he made after a library presentation and has received more than 7,000 views, provides guidance.

Library customers experiencing homelessness gather at the Dallas Public Library’s bi-monthly Coffee & Conversation program. Courtesy of Dallas Public Library

Library customers who are homeless gather at the Dallas Public Library’s bi-monthly
Coffee & Conversation program. Courtesy of Dallas Public Library

Programming to attract teens

Libraries that partner with social service agencies do not always reach homeless youth. “We have not had many teens utilize [our] service. None expressing issues of homelessness,” says Deborah Estreicher, reference librarian at the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Library in San Jose. The same is true at SFPL. Michelle Jeffers, chief of community programs and partners there, says their social worker “rarely, if ever deals with homeless teens.”

Those that do attract homeless youth aim to provide experiences that interest them and address their challenges. The BiblioTech STEM program in Washington State, run by the Kitsap Regional Library (KRL), began bringing science and tech classes to homeless teens in 2013 with help from a Paul G. Allen Family Foundation grant. In partnership with Coffee Oasis, a faith-based, nonprofit program in nearby Bremerton, Seth Ciotti, KRL teen technology librarian, created a 100-hour STEM learning internship and an after-school STEM program. The library still provides workshops on video design, robotics, computer programming, and 3-D printers, and, with Coffee Oasis, offers internships.

A Teen Drop-In Social Hour organized by the Seattle Public Library (SPL) encourages homeless teens and young adults to visit the library for activities and peer group interactions. Each week, some five to 12 teens use the time to consult with social service providers or seek job and education resources. The program was co-developed with the library’s Teen Services Department and New Horizons, a Seattle homeless youth shelter.

“The program wouldn’t work if it weren’t a co-production,” says Hayden Bass, outreach program manager at SPL, adding that the initiative has helped at least one participant find a job and many others find social service and library resources.

Salt Lake City Library teen services coordinator Christina Walsh (left) and deputy director Deborah Ehrman. Courtesy of Salt Lake City Public Library

Salt Lake City Library teen services coordinator Christina Walsh (left) and deputy director Deborah Ehrman.
Courtesy of Salt Lake City Public Library

Project Uplift, which began in 2014, is an information resource fair at the Salt Lake City Library involving government offices, social service agencies, and private sector partners that gather to share information with homeless patrons. In May 2015, the Homeless Youth Resource Center, in cooperation with Volunteers of America, brought their teen clients to the fair to receive free haircuts, clothing, meals, and raffle tickets. During a November fair, deputy director Deborah Ehrman worked with teen services coordinator Christina Walsh, the local Department of Workforce Services, and the city’s Fourth Street Medical Clinic to purposefully include the needs of homeless teens.

At the Dallas Public Library, people who are homeless, including college student Rashad Dickerson, record segments for the Street View Podcast, which is directed by Jasmine Africawala, the library’s community engagement administrator and a 2015 Library Journal Mover & Shaker. Interviewing local social service agency representatives, homeless guests, and library staff members, Dickerson covers multiple issues, from homelessness to drugs to mental illness. In two seasons, 19 episodes with approximately 15 hours of content have aired, and the podcast has been downloaded roughly 11,000 times in over 60 cities in the United States and several other countries, says Africawala.

Outside library walls

The key to creating effective library programs for homeless teens, Winkelstein says, is for librarians to have conversations with area social service providers and include them in the library community. Then librarians can create environments in which homeless teens feel comfortable and will seek out services—whether in a branch or a shelter.

For more than 10 years, the Akron-Summit (OH) Public Library has worked with Project RISE, a federally funded initiative that provides supplemental education services to homeless students in Akron Public Schools. Assistant youth coordinator Sarah Rosenberger and the branch’s children’s librarian serve on the Project RISE advisory council and work with six to eight local homeless shelters and “safe landing shelters” that house runaways ages 16 to 21.

“We go to the shelters, offer summer reading literacy-based activities and other programs,” says Rosenberger. “While working with a wide age range can be a challenge, we try to get books in [young people’s] hands whenever we can.”

The Brooklyn Public Library (BPL) provides on-site programming for homeless patrons at seven local shelters as well as at its New Lots branch. Leigh Hurwitz, BPL’s librarian for local shelters, hosts a monthly “teen summit,” which gives shelter teenagers a chance to speak to library representatives about their concerns. In addition to asking questions about education, applying to and financing college, and health and mental health, participants are able to come to a safe space, speak to a trusted adult, and meet with other patrons their age, Hurwitz says.

At DCPL, a staff person works with shelter parents and children, helping with homework, playing games, or reading stories. The program serves about 30 to 45 teens monthly, says Hauser.

The demand for services is still greater than the shelters or the library can meet. Nonetheless, Hauser says, “I continue to be amazed by the library’s vision to literally support everyone, and not just within the walls of the library.”

hill_head_shot_smallRebecca A. Hill is a freelance writer who writes on education, literacy, science, and parenting/family issues. She has been published in a variety of online and print magazines. To see a selection of her published articles, visit

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