Library strives to serve homeless

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Stacy Vogel
December 23, 2007
— Dan has faced a lot of uncertainty in his life.

His parents divorced when he was a teenager, and he spent his adolescent years shuffling between Janesville and Indiana.

He eventually dropped out of high school and has been homeless a few times. The 29-year-old, who preferred not to give his last name, currently lives at House of Mercy homeless center with his girlfriend and their four children.

But through it all, Hedberg Public Library has provided a comfortable and stable place for him.

“The library has always been a friend to me,” he said.

The library tries to be a friend to all local residents, including homeless people, said Jean Yeomans, adult services coordinator.

Sometimes that means offering resources to people that employees know are homeless.

Sometimes it’s allowing children without fixed addresses to use the Internet for school assignments.

And sometimes it’s just leaving people alone as they peruse newspapers, magazines or movies.

In many cities, libraries attract homeless people because they offer a warm (or, in the summer, cool) public place where they can blend into the general population.

“This is a group of people I think every local library sees,” Yeomans said.

For Dan, the library has been more than that.

Even though he doesn’t have a library card, he credits the library and its resources with helping him earn his high school equivalency degree earlier this year. He hopes to attend Blackhawk Technical College in the fall, and he’ll keep using the library then, he said.

“It’s really accessible, and the people who work there are really helpful,” he said.

Library employees usually don’t know when a patron is homeless, Yeomans said. Although they sometimes have suspicions, they try not to embarrass patrons by asking questions.

“We don’t know if people are homeless unless they say something to indicate it to us,” she said.

When that happens, the library offers the person a “homeless kit” filled with snacks, toiletries and other necessities. Each kit contains a laminated card listing community resources on one side and “survival tips” on the other.

The library started offering the kits in the spring and has only given away five so far, probably because not many people know about them, Yeomans said.

But with the cold weather, she expects to give away a lot more in the coming months. The latest kit was given away last weekend.

Other homeless patrons remain anonymous, and the library has never had any trouble with them, Yeomans said. The library doesn’t give cards to people without fixed addresses, but anyone can spend time in the building and use materials while they’re there. Shelter residents can receive temporary library cards.

Sometimes employees find out about homeless children when they want to use the Internet but have no fixed address, said Sharon Grover, head of youth services. In those cases, the library keeps a card on file for each child who has parental permission to use the computers.

“Anecdotally, it seemed there were more children we were holding (cards for) this summer than previously,” Grover said.

Dan hopes his children use the library too when they get old enough to read.

“I don’t think there’s anything bad you can say about the library, from being homeless to being wealthy,” he said.

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