From Nuisances to Neighbors

Inclusion of Patrons Experiencing Homelessness Through Library and Social Work Partnerships


  • Mary A. Provence IUPUI



Criminalization, homelessness, libraries, needs assessment, problem patron


Public libraries have found themselves, often reluctantly, on the frontline of homelessness. By virtue of being temperature-controlled public spaces with free internet access, libraries provide daytime shelter for thousands of patrons experiencing homelessness. Sometimes considered “problem patrons,” persons experiencing homelessness are at times unfairly targeted by library policies. Violations create the potential for police involvement and arrest, and may contribute to the criminalization of homelessness. Simultaneously, a trend is beginning to emerge of libraries providing or co-locating social services for persons experiencing homelessness. As library services expand, schools of social work have the opportunity to lend both their research and practice expertise. Specifically, schools of social work have the opportunity to partner with public libraries to conduct localized needs assessments of persons experiencing homelessness. Needs assessments should include the direct surveying of patrons, including those experiencing homelessness, to make sure resulting recommendations for library programs and services will be inclusive of all patrons.


Acosta, O., & Toro, P. A. (2000). Let’s ask the homeless people themselves: A needs assessment based on a probability sample of adults. American Journal of Community Psychology, 28, 343-365. doi:

Agans, R., Jefferson, M. T., Bowling J. M., Zeng, D., Yang, J., & Silverbush, M. (2014). Enumerating the hidden homeless: Strategies to estimate the homeless gone missing from a point-in-time count. Journal of Official Statistics, 30(2), 215-229. doi:

American Library Association. (2012, 2013). Policy manual section B: Positions and public policy statements B.8.10-10.1 Policy objective (Old number 61-61.1) (Revised June 25, 2012 and Jan. 27, 2013), 40-41. Retrieved from

American Library Association’s Hunger, Homelessness, and Poverty Task Force. (2005). Are public libraries criminalizing poor people? Public Libraries, 44(3), 175. Retrieved from

Arbinger Institute. (2008). The anatomy of peace: Resolving the heart of conflict. San Francisco: Berrett-Koehler.

Arbinger Institute. (2016). Three ways you might be objectifying others and what to do about it. Retrieved from

Aykanian, A., & Lee, W. (2016). Social work’s role in ending the criminalization of homelessness: Opportunities for action. Social Work 62(2), 183-185. doi:

Aryes, S. (2006). The poor and homeless: An opportunity for libraries to serve. The Southeastern Librarian, 54(1), 66-74.

Bardoff, C. (2015). Homelessness and the ethics of information access. The Serials Librarian, 69(3-4), 347-360. doi:

Brashear, J. K., Maloney, J. J., & Thorton-Jaringe, J. (1981). Problem patrons: The other kind of library security. Faculty Publications, UNL Libraries, 147, 343-351. doi:

Chatterjee, A., Yu, E. J., & Tishberg, L. (2018). Exploring opioid use disorder, its impact, and treatment among individuals experiencing homelessness as part of a family. Drug And Alcohol Dependence, 188, 161–168.

Copeland, J., & Sarvela, D. (2015). Social workers in the library. National Association of Social Workers California News. Retrieved from

Cronin, B. (2002, November 15). What a library is not. Library Journal, 127, 46. Retrieved from

Dallas Public Library. (n.d.a). Code of conduct. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from

Dallas Public Library. (n.d.b). Homeless engagement initiative. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from

Dowd, F. S. (1996). Homeless children in public libraries: A national survey of large systems. Journal of Youth Services in Libraries, 9(2), 155-166.

Ferrell, S. (2010). Who says there’s a problem? A new way to approach the issue of “problem patrons.” Reference & User Services Quarterly, 50(2), 141-151. doi:

Forsythe County Public Library. (2017). Patron behavior policy. Retrieved from

Gaudet, F. (2013). What kind of services supply to the poor? A survey directed toward homeless. Library Review, 62, 43-46. doi:

Gee, A., Barney, L., & O’Malley, J. (2017, February 16). Outside in America: How America counts its homeless- and why so many are overlooked. The Guardian. Retrieved from

Gieskes, L. (2009). Why librarians matter to poor people. Public Library Quarterly, 28, 49-57. doi:

Henry, M., Watt, R., Rosenthal, L., & Shivji, A. (2016). The 2016 Annual Homeless Assessment Report (AHAR) to Congress. The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Office of Community Planning and Development.

Henwood, B. F., Wenzel, S. L., Mangano, P. F., Hombs, M., Padgett, D. K., Byrne, T., ... Uretsky, M. C. (2015). End homelessness. American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Retrieved from

Hersberger, J. (2005). The homeless and information needs and services. Reference & User Services Quarterly, 44(3), 199-202.

Hodgetts, D., Stolte, O., Chamberlain, K., Radley A., Nikora L., Nabalarua, E., & Groot, S. (2008). A trip to the library: Homelessness and social inclusion. Social & Cultural Geography, 9 (8), 933-953. doi:

Indianapolis Public Library. (2011). Behavior policy. Retrieved from

Kelleher, A. (2013). Not just a place to sleep: Homeless perspectives on libraries in central Michigan. Library Review 62(1/2), 19-33. doi:

Kelley L., Riggleman, K., Clara, I., & Navarro, A. E. (2017). Determining the need for social work practice in a public library. Journal of Community Practice 25(1), 112-125. doi:

Leung, L. W., Yen, I. H., & Minkler, M. (2004). Community-based participatory research: A promising approach for increasing epidemiology’s relevance in the 21st century. International Journal of Epidemiology, 33(3), 499-506. doi:

Luckman, M. H., Strafer, D., & Lipski, C. (2016). Three years later, Sandy survivors remain homeless. Touro Law Review, 32(2), 313-349.

Mi, M., Stefaniak, J., & Afonso, N. (2014). Community needs assessment to reach out to an underserved population. Medical Reference Services Quarterly, 33(4), 375-390. doi:

Mitchell, D. (2003). The right to the city: Social justice and the fight for public space. New York: Guilford Press.

Morgan, A. U., Dupuis, R., D’Alonzo, B., Johnson, A., Graves, A., Brooks, K…. Cannuscio, C. C. (2016). Beyond books: Public libraries as partners for population health. Health Affairs, 35(11), 2030-2036. doi:

Muggleton, T. H. (2013). Public libraries and difficulties with targeting the homeless. Library Review, 62(1/2), 7-18. doi:

Muggleton, T. H., & Ruthven, I. (2012). Homelessness and access to the informational mainstream, Journal of Documentation, 68(2), 218-237. doi:

National Coalition for the Homeless. (2009). Why are people homeless? Published by the National Coalition for the Homeless. Retrieved from

National Health Care for the Homeless Council. (n.d.). What is the official definition of homelessness? Retrieved from

Nooe, R. M., & Patterson, D. A. (2010). The ecology of homelessness. Journal of Human Behavior in the Social Environment, 20, 105-152. doi:

Pima County, Arizona Board of Supervisors. (2015). Pima County Public Library Customer Code of Conduct Policy. Retrieved from

Pima Public Library. (n.d.). Library Nurse. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from

Public Broadcasting Service (Producer). (2015, January 28) Library social worker helps homeless seeking quiet refuge [Video file]. Retrieved from

Redfern, B. (2002). The difficult library patron: A selective survey of the current literature. Reference Librarian, 36(75/75), 105-113. doi:

Ryan, E., & Hartman, M. (2000). Homeless families on the border: A demographic profile. Journal of Children & Poverty, 6(2), 169–177. Retrieved from

San Diego County Library. (n.d). Respect. SDCL Rules of Conduct. Retrieved from

San Francisco Public Library Commission. (2014). San Francisco Public Library Commission policy manual: Patron conduct policy - Patron code of conduct policy #201. Retrieved from

San Jose Public Library. (n.d.). Social worker services. Retrieved November 5, 2017, from

San Jose Public Library. (2014). Visitor guidelines for personal belongings. Retrieved from

San Jose Public Library. (2017a). Customer conduct policy. Retrieved from

San Jose Public Library. (2017b). SJPL suspension policy. Retrieved from

Simmons, R. (1985). The homeless in the public library: Implications for access to libraries. American Library Association, 25(1), 110-120.

Skinner, E. J. (2016). People experiencing homelessness: How libraries can be community collaborators and catalysts for change. Paper presented at: IFLA WLIC 2016 – Columbus, OH – Connections. Collaboration. Community in Session 147 - Library Services to People with Special Needs.

Trainin Blank, B. (2014). Public libraries add social workers and social programs. Retrieved from

Travwer, K. R., & Aguiniga, D. M. (2016). Unsheltered homeless youth point-in-time count and outreach: Opportunities for university–community collaboration (practice note). Families in Society: The Journal of Contemporary Social Services, 97(3), 259-264. doi:

United States Census Bureau. (2016). Quick facts. United States population estimates, July 1, 2016. Retrieved from

United States Department of Housing and Urban Development. (2016). HUD 2016 Continuum of Care Homeless Assistance Programs homeless populations and subpopulations report. Retrieved from

Wong, Y. L. (2009). Homelessness in public libraries. Journal of Access Services, 6, 396-410. doi: