Among the many roles for which public libraries are appreciated, there’s one that can be problematic: de facto day shelter for homeless people. Downtown’s Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library attracts many such patrons, and Jean Badalamenti understands why.
“The city drops folks from three shelters off here every morning and picks them up in the evening. So they come here because of that,” said Badalamenti, a social worker who in May became the D.C. Public Library’s first health and human services coordinator.
“But they would come here anyway,” she continued. “The library’s a great place to spend the day for anybody. You get access to computers, you can look for jobs, you can connect with your family and friends on Facebook and e-mail, use [photo software] and do lots of creative things.”
Libraries in other cities have addressed homelessness in various ways. Philadelphia has a cafe and Seattle a coffee cart run by workers who were previously homeless; Dallas produces podcasts of interviews with its homeless regulars. But as far as Badalamenti knows, D.C. is only the second U.S. city to hire a library social worker, following San Francisco.
There, several people work directly with homeless patrons, something Badalamenti is occasionally asked to do. “Sometimes staff will call me, just because I’m here, and say, ‘Can you come down?’ And I’ll go down and try to talk to someone. I’m happy to do that. I enjoy that,” she said.
“But that’s not really my job. I’m sort of the bigger picture person.”
A former Ward 4 advisory neighborhood commissioner who has a master’s degree in social work from Howard University and 25 years of experience, Badalamenti works in the library’s programs and partnerships office.
“I really was brought on to figure out how the library can engage more disenfranchised populations in the city,” she said. “And make connections with other organizations to help provide programming.”
Badalamenti knows the situation at MLK best, because her office is there, but she noted that there are homeless “hot spots” throughout the system, as there are in most cities, and in many suburban library systems as well. One of her tasks is introducing the issue to the approximately 100 new staffers hired last year when the library system expanded its hours.
“Those people haven’t necessarily worked in an urban environment before,” she said. “And so [we are] helping them understand what it means to be homeless, what people experience when they’re homeless. Just a sort of sensitivity training, but hopefully we’ll be doing some other kinds of training, even around de-escalation. Identifying folks who might be in a crisis, so the library can respond and be helpful.
“De-escalation,” she explained, means restoring calm: “If someone’s getting angry and frustrated, how do you de-escalate a confrontational situation or an emotional situation?”
The library has just begun a staff survey about interaction with patrons who might be homeless, Badalamenti said. “How’s it impacting your day? What do you need from us? What do you need so that you can do your job and be helpful to these folks — and every single other customer that comes through the door?”
She also hopes the city’s libraries can serve as a point of “coordinated entry” for people in need of social services. “Because the libraries tend to be gathering places for people without homes, it’s important to be part of the citywide conversation about how we’re going to address homelessness, health services and moving people out of homelessness,” she said.
Badalamenti doesn’t want to stigmatize homeless people, or suggest that their presence in the library is inherently a burden. “Every person who comes in who is homeless is not creating a problematic situation,” she said. “All customers, with and without homes, create lots of interesting situations.”
Although homelessness may seem to be an intractable issue, Badalamenti is upbeat. “I think it’s pretty amazing that DCPL saw a need. Instead of turning away from the problem . . . let’s embrace everybody who’s here. And let’s figure out how we can serve them better.”
Jenkins is a freelance writer.