Homeless Engagement Initiative in Dallas
Dallas Public Library, Texas
The J. Erik Jonsson Central Library opens its doors daily to hundreds of customers experiencing homelessness. According to the 2013 Point in Time Count conducted by the Metro Dallas Homeless Alliance, 2972 individuals are homeless in Dallas County. This number is much higher in other major cities and subsequently most urban libraries struggle with the same challenge. The public as well as library staff have difficulty sharing the library with this population. Many fear or dislike those experiencing homelessness while others simply do not know how to connect with them. Instead of developing ways to accommodate both housed and homeless populations by separating them, the Dallas Public Library has surmised that it is the lack of intermingling between the groups that causes fear, dislike and disconnect. Accordingly, the library has developed programs to encourage intergroup mingling in the library and increase awareness of homelessness to dispel stereotypes and open channels of communication, including bi-monthly Coffee & Conversation programs and a podcast, Street View. With the Homeless Engagement Initiative, the public library has an opportunity to do what it does best: open its doors to one and all; encourage the exchange of ideas; and holdfast to the fundamentals of a democratic society.
Security By identifying and addressing hot spots for criminal behavior and improving security protocols in and around the library, the library was able to remove the majority of crime from library premises. Security guards are encouraged to use sensitivity when dealing with non-criminal policy violations. Library Staff There was a lot of ambiguity regarding the library’s stance on the homeless. Therefore, it was necessary to clarify to library staff that the library exists to serve our community and individuals experiencing homelessness are part of that community. In addition, the library adopted the term “customers experiencing homelessness” when discussing the population to reinforce that those who walk through our doors are first and foremost our customers who are legitimate library users with legitimate information needs who happen to be experiencing different way of living. Customer Engagement In light of the fact that library staff did not know the names of our homeless customers’ nor did they generally feel comfortable engaging with them in conversation, the library partnered with CitySquare AmeriCorps to hire resource coordinators to engage these customers and identify key influencers among the homeless community. Building upon newly developed relationships, the library began bi-monthly Coffee & Conversation programs and conducted a Homeless Engagement Survey to evaluate demographics, library use and future program interests. Community Awareness Recognizing a lack of community awareness or advocacy around issues related to homelessness in Dallas, the library strengthened relationships with existing homeless service providers by inviting them to be a part of Street View, a podcast produced at the library about issues related to homelessness. The podcast has been well received by the community and local media.
The initial Coffee & Conversation program paved the way for a successful turnout for the library’s first Homeless Engagement Survey which provided quantitative data to better understand demographics, library use and interests of homeless library users. The results indicated that customers experiencing homelessness visit the library more for its intended purpose of accessing print and digital information than because the library is a safe and quiet place. Coffee & Conversation programs have improved relationships between library staff and customers experiencing homelessness. One staff said, “I’ve seen a real change in the number of customers who stop by the desk to say hello or chat rather than just making a beeline for some corner of the library where they can sit unnoticed.” In less than three weeks after the Street View podcast debuted, the website was viewed more than 3,000 times, and the podcast was played and downloaded nearly 2,600 times. Street View made Podomatic.com’s Movers and Shakers list twice and has regularly been ranked in the top ten of all Society & Culture podcasts on the site. The podcast was featured in the Dallas Observer, Dallas Morning News and D Magazine, allowing the podcast’s message to reach far and wide. One listener said, “It really brought home the fact that my preconceptions about ‘homeless’ people are clearly wrong… I now feel I understand the day to day life of a homeless person a tiny bit better than I did before listening to the podcast.”