The second most common question that I’ve been encountering on job interviews is, “so, what was it like serving Members of Congress [in your most recent position at the Law Library of Congress]?” The answer is, “it was nice, but they’re not really the primary patron group. They don’t walk into the Reading Room, they rarely call. I mostly served members of the public, especially pro se litigants and homeless patrons.”

This fact does not impress most people.

However, I was very concerned with giving the best possible service to homeless patrons. The parade of sad stories was varied: veterans with addiction issues, domestic violence survivors, folks too old for the foster system, but not old enough for Adult Protective Services, and a range of mental health issues. Which is to say, most of these patrons had other very serious problems which likely led to their homelessness. And they were angry. There was a lot of yelling, erratic behavior, and that was all very unpleasant. But, at the end of the day, I always got to come home, eat dinner and sleep in my bed.

In the spirit of gratitude for being able to sleep in your own bed at night, some practice tips for dealing with homeless patrons:

  • Just listen. Law librarians cannot offer legal advice, and we’re often quick to point out that fact to public patrons when we’re tired of listening to their stories. But, when you’re ignored in the public arena (in stores, on the streets) you might just want someone to listen to your problems to confirm that you’re still human.
  • Recommend appropriate resources. Let’s say someone comes in with a court summons that cites a rule. Don’t throw the entire Rules of Civil Procedure at them. Get the right volume of the annotated code (of wherever), show them the rule, then show them the annotations so they can read about it, see some case examples, etc. Is language an issue? Give them the annotated rules and a dictionary.
  • If you can’t help, suggest someone who can. Familiarize yourself with your areas’ shelters, non-profits, and government agencies that handle veterans’, domestic violence, addiction, and general mental health issues. Recommending another resource is typically not legal advice. Try, “have you contacted the VA?,” or “are you familiar with city’s Rape Crisis Hotline?”
  • If it’s getting ugly, tell the patron exactly what behavior they need to change in order to stay in the library. “You need to lower your voice,” or “I need you to step back so that I can continue helping you.” A specific direction is more considerate, and likely more effective.
  • If you need to call law enforcement, tell them in advance that the patron is homeless. Police can certainly offer different resources for homeless folks than a law librarian can, but they will often handle a situation differently when homelessness is an issue. I’ve seen it happen, and it’s always been a more positive outcome than anticipated.
  • Keep thinking about your bed. I’m not suggesting that you pity the person in front of you, but at least be cognizant of the fact that the universe has given you a bed today, and act accordingly. What the universe giveth, the universe can taketh away.

How do you help your homeless patrons? Is it even an issue in your library?