BOISE — For the nearly three months Sherri Lake and her dog were living in her van, the Boise Public Library was a lifeline.
Until she got a place of her own earlier this month, she went to the main library on Capitol Boulevard every morning to charge her phone, use the computer to look for apartments and chat with other people. Unlike most places in the city that require buying something to stay in the store or use the bathroom, the library is open to anyone for any amount of time — free of charge. All she needed to do was walk in the door and she was welcome to stay.
“In order to feel as normal as possible I got into a daily routine, and a big part of that was going to the library,” Lake, 58, said. “They treated everyone really nice, and I always felt comfortable there.”
The library has long been a refuge for those experiencing homelessness in Boise and cities worldwide, but Boise has recently rolled out new training for all of its staff to make patrons of all income levels feel welcome and help them get connected to resources if they need help. Earlier this year, all of the library’s staff went through a training by Chicago homeless shelter director Ryan Dowd called the “Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness” to help staff be prepared to assist anyone that comes through the library’s doors.
According to Dowd’s website, the training covers topics like how to address residents who are sleeping, those who might bring in too many bags or who are having a mental health crisis with compassion and in a service-driven way, instead of just forcing a visitor to leave or another reaction that might make a marginalized person feel unwelcome.
Information Services Librarian Eliza Ruby said the heart of the training was to treat all visitors with empathy, no matter who they are or why they might be coming to the library.
“A lot of it is just having compassion for everybody who is walking through the doors and understanding that everyone has their own struggles they’re going through, and if someone is experiencing homelessness, they might be encountering a lot more trauma than someone who does have a home,” Ruby said.
One of the major things the training pushed is for library staff to talk openly with patrons and learn the names for regular visitors, which can help them feel more comfortable and welcome. Ruby said by encouraging staff to talk more with residents it can make helping them with their needs easier.
“Even if (someone) looks really scary, that might be their costume, and they might be the nicest person you talk to all day long,” she said. “People know my name and I know their name and they follow up with me with questions, so the trust is being built a lot more so we can help them find resources they need.”
The library provides social programs to help connect people to help they might need, including assistance filing taxes, free law clinics for legal advice, help signing up for Medicaid and a staff member from the VA to help veterans experiencing homelessness.
The social aspect of visiting the library was a major help for Lake. Although she would see her son most days to drive him to work, she spent almost all of her time alone looking for places to walk her dog, visiting the laundromat and other dog-friendly stores to stay out of the elements. Her morning hours at the library were some of the few places she could spend time around others.
“It’s a good thing I’m a loner, but I was just always alone,” she said. “Being able to be around other people when you’re used to being by yourself meant a lot.”
The library does not collect data on how many of its visitors are experiencing homeless. Ruby said one statistic she has heard is for every library visitor who appears to be outwardly experiencing homelessness there are at least two or three other visitors who no one would guess do not have a roof over their head. In January, the federally mandated Point-In-Time Count found there were 713 people experiencing homelessness on a single night in Ada County.
The city of Boise is working on an $85 million main library replacement project, which would expand the main branch to over 100,000 square feet and update the facilities and add more space. Although the design will be significantly grander than the former warehouse that currently houses the main branch, city officials say the new library will continue to be just as welcoming to all visitors and will have the same resources to help those in need.
“The library will always be for everybody,” Boise’s Director of Community Partnerships Wyatt Schroeder said. “The library staff can’t be naive about what that means. From any number of reasons there’s this golden road that leads to libraries in every single community around the country, and if you’re experiencing homelessness then it’s a golden road you’re used to walking.”
For people who experience homelessness like Lake did earlier this year, no matter what shape or size of building the library is in, it will always be a safe place to go.
“Being at the library and knowing you could interact with people and even just have a bathroom to use was great,” she said. “It’s the little things.”