BELOIT — Libraries are often a refuge for the homeless.
It’s part of the reason the Beloit Public Library and others in the Arrowhead Library System and city staff will be undergoing training on how to interact with the homeless. The library will be offering two three-hour sessions from the Homeless Librarian Training Institute on Friday with speaker Joe Dutra.
Dutra is authorized to provide trainings on behalf of Ryan Dowd, who spent most of his career as executive director of a large homeless shelter outside Chicago and who wrote the book “The Librarian’s Guide to Homlesseness.” In addition to running the shelter, Dowd trains libraires, nonprofits, police departments, hospitals and other organizations on how to work compassionately and manage problematic behavior from troubled individuals. The training will have a special focus on the mentally ill and/or addicted patrons.
Beloit Public Library Marketing and Communications Coordinator Amy Mitchell said 120 people were already signed up for Friday’s event and Beloit Public Library staff are required to attend.
The Beloit Public Library staff typically see three to five homeless people a week, Mitchell said.
“Libraries are judgment free zones and have been places of refuge for homeless across the nations for years,” Mitchell said. “If we can understand where the homeless are coming from and how to help and respect them, it makes for a much better experience from both sides.”
Mitchell said staff at the library make an effort to have a good relationship with the homeless, looking them in the eye and saying ‘hello.’ Because the library allows people to stay as long as they want during business hours, it can be a safe and comfortable space for the homeless who may use it for reading, socializing, eating or resting.
Although Beloit Public Library doesn’t generally have any problems with the homeless who come through its doors, Mitchell said it’s good for staff to be more understanding of the needs of the homeless and how to broach difficult conversations on topics such as body odor, sleeping/snoring, panhandling, having too many bags or other issues which come up.
Mitchell said she’s learned in other education programs that it’s not a good idea to grab the bag of a homeless person if unattended because the homeless can be defensive about their only remaining belongings.
The only challenge staff at the Beloit Public Library have dealt with is body odor. While staff can direct the homeless to resources for food or other assistance, directing them somewhere to bathe or do laundry can be a challenge. To help address the problem, Mitchell said Head of Programming and Community Engagement Katharine Clarke is looking into ways to have a traveling shower organization come once a week to Beloit.