Library Patrons Experiencing Poverty and Homelessness: Identifying Needs and Developing Evidence-Based Practices and Services.
Established in 1904 and situated as a cornerstone of the court square in historic downtown Newnan, Georgia, the Newnan Carnegie Library currently serves as a library, community programming and event center, and reading room. The Newnan Carnegie provides innovative and educative programming to the Newnan community. The library has built its programming around its mission as an open-access informational resource to the community. In doing so, library staff take great pride in treating all patrons equally as they work to meet their service and information needs. In recent years, the library has become a sanctuary to a small number of persons experiencing poverty and homelessness. Library staff spend significant amounts of time working with these patrons to help connect them with a limited number of basic social and health services. Library staff are passionate about serving all patrons, but they are especially passionate about serving patrons in vulnerable positions such as those experiencing poverty and homelessness. The Newnan Carnegie Library staff reported that, based on their interactions with patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness, they believe there may be a need for services specific to this population beyond what the library currently provides. The purpose of this quality improvement project is to assist the Newnan Carnegie Library in identifying the needs and expectations of patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness and to develop an evidence-based and actionable approach to best serve patrons within the scope of the library's mission and goals. This study's project design draws on a conceptual framework that utilizes elements of cultural competence (Overall, 2009) and gatekeeping (Anderson et al., 2012). I designed three research questions to guide my work that draw on information collected during initial informational interviews with library staff and patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness, discussions with city leadership, field observations, a review of library documents relevant to addressing my research questions, and literature pertinent to the problem of practice. The study sought to answer three research questions. What are the needs of library patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness, what are the library’s current practices for serving patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness, and what is the capacity of the library to meet the needs identified in research question 1. The study produced four findings. The needs of patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness include access to the library as a haven, referrals to community assistance services, and computer and internet use to access online social and health services and benefits applications; however, computer literacy is a significant obstacle for these patrons in navigating and completing these applications, resulting in library staff having to provide time-consuming assistance. The second finding is that while the needs of patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness include accessing the library as a haven, referrals to community assistance services, and navigating and completing online services applications, the library staff and the patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness described additional physical and mental health services and shelter and food pantry access needs beyond what the library can currently provide. The third finding is that library staff interact regularly with patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness and report drawing on a set of practices grounded in empathy. Nevertheless, staff reported feeling personally under-resourced in meeting the needs they discover as they interact with these patrons. The fourth finding is that staff reported a tension between the intrinsic motivation to better serve patrons experiencing poverty and homelessness and the finite resources available to meet their additional service needs.