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How Wisconsin Libraries Are Helping Meet the Needs of People Experiencing Homelessness

Tuesday, December 19, 2023

Libraries across Wisconsin are places for everyone. Communities are made up of people, some of whom may experience homelessness. We asked libraries how they are connecting people with resources, serving as meeting spaces for groups addressing homelessness, or as simply a place to warm up and feel welcome. The responses we received are a great testament to how your local library connects with the local community – one organization, one initiative, one person at a time.

If you’re looking for more innovative ways to work with patrons experiencing homelessness, check out this December 20 webinar: Transient Populations: How to Work with Patrons Experiencing Homelessness in Libraries (from 1-2: p.m. CST).

There’s no way to list all of the community organizations and initiatives each local library or library system has. But we hope that these small glimpses help provide inspiration for you and your local community.

Brown County Public Library
The Community Resource Tuesday program at the Central Library location has outreach times scheduled each week (currently Tuesdays from 2-4 p.m.) for clients to connect with community social service providers. The service providers vary week to week to make sure all library customers get their needs addressed. Providers address mental health concerns, housing or shelter programs, veterans issues, domestic violence issues, food insecurity, and basic needs.

They also provide hats, gloves, and hat/foot warmers during cold weather months. The hats and gloves are created by community members and are accessible for anyone in need. The library also provides free produce, accessible for anyone in need, from their hydroponic farm and community garden at our Central Library.

Fond du Lac Public Library
The city of Fond du Lac has few safe places for individuals who are unhoused to visit during the daytime hours while the city's overnight shelter is closed; often, the Fond du Lac Public Library serves as a welcoming place for them. Because the Fond du Lac Public Library aims to be radically welcoming to all members of the community, it has taken steps to make these vulnerable individuals feel welcome in the library.

During the winter months, the library has created a new Book Chat program held on Tuesday mornings by the library's fireplace, which is a common location for unhoused individuals to warm up. While this program is open to all, it especially gives unhoused individuals a sense of agency and a voice in the library since they can express their interests and thoughts in a safe space, whether it's about a book they've read or anything else that interests them.

With Hope on the Block, a nonprofit organization in Fond du Lac, the library provides daily essentials to people in need via a pantry cabinet that is available 24/7 at the north entrance to the library. Library staff regularly accept community donations such as toothpaste, canned goods, and more at the library.

Kenosha Public Library
Kenosha Public Library serves as one of the warming centers in Kenosha. This is often when they connect patrons to KHDS and other resources in the community.

A quote from one of Kenosha’s Branch Managers (Jennifer Kozelou) sums it up: "I think, at the end of the day, we focus on referring people because we are not experts in solving unhousing, and people going through these traumatic situations deserve the experts who specifically focus on these issues. It takes a community to deal with these issues, and we are one piece of the puzzle."

Beloit Public Library
Hosts Project 16:49 to hold weekly in-library “office hours” from noon-4 p.m. on Wednesdays for those seeking assistance. They also host a group named “Dwelling Angels,” that offers weekly community meals from noon-1:30 p.m. on Saturdays.

Hedberg Public Library (Janesville)
The library partners with a local food bank called Everybody Cooperating Helping Others (ECHO) to provide meal bags to library users in need. Each bag includes their brochure, which lets users know they can work through ECHO's Rapid Reentry Program for help with housing, with their PATH program for help with addiction recovery and mental health treatment, and with Legal Aid for assistance removing legal blocks to rentals and leases.

The library collects donations of money and supplies for the hygiene kits through an wish list, and through their Friends of the Library organization. Each drawstring backpack contains single use-sized bottles of shampoo, body wash, lotion, deodorant, socks, snacks, sanitary supplies for people who menstruate, and a few other items depending on availability and the season.

Today (December 19), the library will host an Office Hours for Veterans seeking housing and health care from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m.

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library (Eau Claire)
The L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library in Eau Claire has a Community Resources Program consisting of one full-time registered social worker, Libby Richter MSW, APSW, and occasional social work interns, along with hosting social service partnerships. Eau Claire is the first in the state to have a library social worker. The primary goal of the program is to connect and aid people through the existing systems intended to serve their needs.

People in Eau Claire are struggling to find safe and affordable housing. Libby frequently serves people experiencing homelessness who have housing vouchers in hand but are unable to locate willing landlords. Libby has an intimate knowledge of available resources and can guide people to a successful conclusion.

The need for this support is immense. Eau Claire’s Community Resources Program is on track to see customer contacts double compared to previous years. As the de facto service hub and day shelter for the communities they serve, public libraries need support now more than ever to meet the challenges facing the library, its employees, and its customers.

Big thanks to our public library consultants for help with this article, and also to all the libraries and staff across Wisconsin who serve all community members with care and joy.

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