As tech changes homelessness, libraries roll with the punches

The warmth and quiet of the library have ever been a draw for those suffering from homelessness, but the past decade has piled more responsibilities on the shoulders of these institutions. The digital resources they provide are more important than ever for the homeless, but libraries have warily embraced their new role.

It is needless to recount here what most city-dwellers already know, that the homeless situation is critical in many cities, and that it is a hugely complex problem in both causes and potential solutions.

But it’s worth noting that the closure of mental institutions in the ’80s created an enduring and poorly addressed population of deeply ill homeless, compounded by veterans of conflicts in the ’90s — compounded again by rapid gentrification and the rising cost of living in most metropolitan areas.

And as the backdrop for all this, the rise of the information age — the future, as in William Gibson’s most continuously relevant epigram, but unequally distributed. As industries were reinvented, homeless people were systematically excluded from systems that barely tolerated them in the first place.

But it has not all been bad news. The introduction of smartphones and widespread Wi-Fi allowed — as the future made its way downward through the social strata — for communication, information and entertainment. I used to do a double take when I saw a homeless person typing away at their phone, but the idea that phones are “luxuries” and that these people might be feigning destitution gave way quickly to the understanding that these devices are as necessary for someone in dire straits as they are for anyone else.

Even government services and associated aid organizations have evolved, putting crucial information like shelter updates, phone numbers, job-hunting resources and important paperwork online, and even in a mobile-friendly format. Programs like the U.S. Digital Service have been working on that lately, but the infrastructure they are revamping is often decades old. It’s a work in progress.

Libraries have changed as well — obviously the book-centric model that predominated the 20th century has moved on to a hybrid one, where digital resources are as important as physical ones. And although the homeless have always found their way into libraries for one reason or another, be it help putting together a resume or just to get out of the cold, they are coming in record numbers and to share resources that are being spread increasingly thin.

Consider something as simple as computer and internet access. Personal computers long ago graduated from something you’d sit and do work at for half an hour, yet that is the model around which most library access is organized. It’s also a source of judgment for homeless people using public computers: How can someone monopolize such a resource just to browse reddit or watch YouTube? Shouldn’t they be looking for a job and then leaving after their allotted 45 minutes?

Libraries were always sources of education, but that has become more pronounced recently as they’ve shifted from being the ones that store information to those that provide free and open access to it. With the combination of how that information is used and who needs these services, this involves a transformation not just of purpose but of architecture: Becoming a place where people come and stay rather than a place people visit.

That transformation doesn’t come equally easily to all libraries or branches. It may be that a small, underfunded library happens to be near a shelter or bus station and attracts more of the homeless than it can serve, and indeed more than intend to use the library for its “intended” purpose. Though these facilities were designed to provide short-term refuge for any and all, they’re generally not equipped or staffed to handle the volume or types of people who find their way in and stay sometimes from open to close.

But some libraries are being proactive about both the way they provide access and in contacting at-risk populations where they are instead of waiting for them to come to a crowded central branch in desperation.

“Having internet access and Wi-Fi access is critically important for homeless populations,” said SPL communications director Andra Addison. “Many cannot afford a computer or cannot afford the cost of data for their phones or electronic devices. This is important when looking for work or completing school assignments. Our librarians visit homeless encampments where they bring Wi-Fi hotspots and other resources.”

The library has nearly a thousand portable Wi-Fi devices, which have been checked out some 27,000 times since the program started in 2015. That may be the difference between being able to answer a job-related email in time or not, or being in touch with family during a crucial moment.

SPL and the San Francisco Public Library have initiated other social programs as well. As the homeless crisis has worsened, so too has the strain on libraries, and the latter have taken steps to address the problem rather than the symptoms.

That means social workers at library branches frequented by homeless people who are schooled not just in how to interact with what can sometimes be an intimidating population, but how to offer them lasting help. The library is a conduit to information, right? That already includes helping people with job searches and schoolwork — why shouldn’t it also be a way for the homeless and mentally ill to get directed to the help they need?

To this end, libraries have had to specialize in populations — the recently released from prison, veterans, teens, those suffering from addiction and so on.

“Libraries welcome and serve everyone, no matter their age, background or income level. Libraries are also particularly committed to helping the underserved, particularly the insecurely housed,” Addison said. If that’s the mission, then that’s the mission — if fulfilling that mission looks different today than it did 10, 20 or 50 years ago, that just means we’ve successfully evolved the model.

Computers, smartphones and the internet are at the core of this change not just because it is the way things get done these days, but because they have the possibility to systematically improve access for the unfortunate as well as the fortunate. But that transition, too, is a painful one — when the eye of the technotopians is forever pointed upwards and outwards, to look backwards and downwards at the people it has left behind.

Libraries are not the only ones that must adapt if we are to build a truly inclusive environment in tech. Startups, funding, even hardware makers should be looking at making it their responsibility not just to reach higher heights but to lift up the lowest among us.


This post was written as part of the SF Homelessness Project, a yearly event in which news organizations highlight the causes of and solutions to homelessness throughout the nation.