A big city library has turned around the way it handles some of its most marginalized visitors. The Dallas Public Library has committed to not just tolerating—but welcoming—every homeless person who walks through the door.
Nowhere To Go
Dallas in the winter isn’t exactly Siberia, but some January days are bitter. Just ask 55-year-old David Jackson.
“It’s cold, it’s dark and you got to lay your head down a spot you feel safe, you can’t just lay down anywhere," he says.
Jackson usually sleeps under a bridge. He hasn’t had a place to live in a very long time.
“I’ve been homeless off and on a good 20 years of my life," he says. "I’m an alcoholic. You know I’ve got issues, a lot of issues.”
His issues include both addiction and mental illness, and the downtown Dallas library is a haven on a raw January day.
“The library’s a good place for the homeless. It’s warm, you’ve got different floors to go to, you got your own space," Jackson says.
A Warmer Welcome
And that sums up why so many homeless men and women gather at the library. It’s clean, it’s quiet, and there’s plenty to do. And in Dallas, the library strives to be welcoming.
“We started out about five years ago really engaging them as they came into the building," says Jo Giudice, the city's director of libraries. "Simply smiling and making eye contact and getting to know them as human beings was our first step and it made a huge difference.”
She says this attitude adjustment is working. There have been fewer outbursts from homeless patrons inside the library, and not one official complaint lodged against a homeless person in more than a year.
The downtown library has taken down all the "no" signs: No eating, no drinking, no sleeping have been replaced with signs that say things like "respect others."
Coffee And Conversation
On days when the temperatures dip below freezing, staffers open up a little early.
“Around 7:30, 8 in the morning, depending on when we get it together, we do open the doors on the first floor and allow folks, everyone in, and we take an extra step and we actually serve hot coffee," Giudice says.
The library’s Heather Lowe runs that early morning coffee show.
“We have space and it doesn’t take much effort other than maybe setting your alarm a little bit earlier to come in and just be with people and bring them out of the cold and have some conversation," she says.
She loves how the ritual has helped the folks who work at the library figure out just how diverse of the homeless population is.
“They are concert pianists or they graduated with an engineering degree," Lowe says. "It’s really impressed upon me and staff here across the library that the only thing standing between any of us and homelessness is a social safety net and a bad circumstance, some sort of catastrophe."
Turning Out To Volunteer
As Guidice points out, it’s a grueling nighttime exercise where people count the homeless where they live -- on the street.
“It is probably the longest, coldest, hardest night of your life. At the same time it is heartwarming," she says. "At the end of the night, most of the team was crying, seeing the environments that people were living in out of the street.”
“Because we’re talking about such an extraordinarily large geographic area -- both Dallas and Collin County -- in order for that count to be accurate, you literally have to have hundreds of volunteers, to do a blitz count, all to go out on one night," Crain says.
Seeing Things Differently
The library is a reliable source of volunteers. Forty staffers signed up last year, and the library expects even more to turn out for this year's count on Jan. 26.
Guidice says that one cold night of harsh reality is a worthwhile window into a very different world.
“They’re our people, we know them," she said. "So we want to make their lives better. We’re striving to do that every day, and this is just another opportunity.”
An opportunity to change the lives of those being counted, and to change the view of those doing the counting.