Written by Vikki C. Terrile, Librarian and Assistant Professor, Queensborough Community College, CUNY, Bayside, NY

Libraries are often a lifeline for families in homeless situations. Prior to the pandemic, they were the place where kids and parents could come to use computers, access services, attend programs, and of course, read and borrow books and other materials. For families staying in shelters or other settings that required them to leave during the day, libraries were likely the only safe indoor space they could visit that didn’t cost money while also offering a wide range of services and amenities. The COVID-19 pandemic changed all of that, and now that libraries are slowly reopening, it’s a good time to consider the role libraries can play in supporting students and families experiencing homelessness.

For fifteen years as a public librarian, I worked closely with McKinney-Vento liaisons, shelter education and recreation directors, and staff from the New York City Department of Homeless Services and Department of Education to make sure families in temporary housing had access to library services. This always started with library card drives at individual shelters and at special events. Policies around proof of residence can prevent families in temporary housing from getting a library card; old fees and fines can be a barrier, too. By doing the cards on-site and in partnership with education and shelter agencies, I was able to break these barriers; I waived plenty of fees and fines, too. I also brought programming into shelters, based on their individual needs. Often this was preschool storytime, with read-alouds, songs, and activities. Book and craft programs were always a hit with older kids. I tried book clubs for tweens and for parents, and short story discussions, too. And of course, programming around Summer Reading. None of the programs I did were revolutionary; I was simply taking my passion for reading and literacy out into the world where families needed me to come to them.

Images above (clockwise from left to right): Sensory story time activity at an NYC family shelter; “Zine” created by kids at an NYC family shelter for Summer Reading; Silly nametag I used for special events; Pinwheel and “sparklers” crafts from a preschool story time session at an NYC family shelter.

Through this outreach, I began reading and learning more and more about family and student homelessness, and what started as a need to understand has grown into a passion to share what I am learning with other library workers. I feel blessed to be able to talk to librarians around the country about how they can connect with their local McKinney-Vento liaisons, social service agencies and non-profit organizations, and help meet the needs of families. I know that many librarians don’t know much about what family homelessness looks like in their communities, or where to go to find out; I help get them started. It’s a strange thing–many people know that families experiencing homelessness (and many other people in homeless situations) use libraries all the time, but libraries and librarians are not always included in conversations with other community stakeholders. 

Many of the McKinney-Vento liaisons I talk to say they already have connections to their local library, that they call when they have a student who needs a computer to complete assignments, or a family that owes money for lost books. In these one-off moments, the librarians do what they can, but these connections don’t always evolve into relationships and partnerships that have long-term benefits for students and families. As we head into this summer, and as capacity and other COVID-19 restrictions are loosened or lifted, public libraries are once again positioned as valuable resources for students and families experiencing homelessness or housing instability. The time is right to start making connections and building relationships. 

To get started, visit your local library website or this website to search for a library or find information on libraries and archives, find the head of children’s or youth services and call them (it’s harder for them to ignore a phone call than an email!). Tell them about your kids and your families, let them know that they need libraries and everything libraries have to offer, now more than ever. Think about how you can help each other. Be strategic and consider collective impact: can the library have a stronger presence in and through the schools so that families with limited transportation don’t have to make multiple trips? Once meeting and program room spaces are available safely again, can the library host a Continuum of Care or other stakeholders’ meeting?

We all want the best for our kids and families, especially with the ongoing devastation of the pandemic. By reaching out to libraries instead of waiting for libraries to reach out to you, you can start building connections that can support families throughout a lifetime of learning. 

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