“People make a lot of assumptions about who is experiencing homelessness, based on how someone looks, acts, smells, or dresses,” said the library’s Director of Social Services and Safety Robert Simmons. “But really, you don’t know if someone is homeless unless they tell you.”
As the Oak Park Homelessness Coalition notes in its 2016 Plan of Action, “The homeless are not just on our streets. They are our classmates at school. Our parents and friends from work or church or baseball teams. They are members of our community.”
More than 5 percent of Oak Park residents live in extreme poverty, one missed rent payment away from eviction and homelessness, and about 200 kids in Oak Park elementary schools and high schools are homeless, according to the coalition. The coalition is is funded by the Oak Park Township and has more than 30 member institutions, including the library.
Simmons, who worked previously for the Oak Park Township, said it was overwhelming to learn how many families were experiencing episodic homelessness and “doubling up,” which can mean living with friends and relatives, staying on someone’s couch, or spending a few weeks in a shelter or hotel.
Libraries are for everyone
Whatever someone’s situation, Simmons said he tries to never make assumptions: “We have to be careful about profiling, stereotyping people, with the intention of removing them from a space.” For many people experiencing homelessness, the library can be a haven—a safe, quiet space apart from the turbulence of life in a shelter or on the street, with free resources for learning, job-seeking, and entertainment.
Simmons, who works with Housing Forward and other organizations to connect people with resources, notes there is at least a five-year wait for subsidized housing in Oak Park. He stresses that homelessness is a community issue: “From a public policy standpoint, locally, regionally, nationwide, we can do much better.”
Removing barriers to access
To have the widest access to library resources, you need a library card. And to get a library card, you typically need proof of a permanent home address.
But what if you don’t have one? Maybe you’re temporarily staying on a friend’s couch, or sleeping in a shelter?
“Libraries are for everyone, no matter what their housing situation is,” said Lori Pulliam, Director of Public Services and Programs. “If someone tells us they don’t have a permanent home address, we will work with that person to get them a library card so they can have access to resources and services.”
As of July, about 100 people who identify as homeless had Oak Park library cards. Those cards carry regular privileges, but must be renewed annually. The same is true for cards issued to Oak Park educators and Oak Park business owners.