December 22, 2020

Homeless Persons' Remembrance Day

Note: I was supposed to post this yesterday. Sorry for the delay.

December 21st is the Winter Solstice, the longest night of the year. This is likely why it was also chosen as Homeless Persons' Remembrance Day, when we honor those homeless people who have died.

Every year we see the same headlines about men and women found frozen, dead from exposure. Many of these people chose a spot—an alley, some vacant lot, an underpass—to bed down for a cold night and simply never woke up. Some of these people have no family left, while others have loved ones out there, somewhere, who have lost contact with them over the years and will never officially learn of their deaths. Hence, Homeless Persons Remembrance Day, where we, the community, take on the collective act of mourning these people.

What does this have to do with libraries? There's a well-known slogan that librarians use: "libraries are for everyone", and that includes the homeless. We are one of the last places where anyone can come, free of charge, and spend all day in a safe, dry environment. Moreover, in a library, everyone is treated equally.

The presence of homeless people in libraries can be a contentious issue in some circles, but thankfully, in the libraries I’ve worked, both the patrons and staff have been very respectful of them. Yet, I still here the odd comment that rubs me the wrong way.

“I think that guy's on something,” a man once told me in Flagstaff, pointing to one of our homeless patrons, whom I had known for a while and who was suffering from some mental illness. “No”, I said, attempting to defend him without breaching his privacy, “he’s just dealing with some things”.

“I read an article recently about how they’re taking over libraries,” one woman told me. “No”, I said, “they’re using libraries. They’re reading books and using our computers. Just like everyone else.”

Truly, homeless patrons use the library in the same way as non-homeless patrons, though they tend to do so more frequently or for longer stretches. These people become part of “The Regulars”—those people who the staff know on sight. To this day, I miss a lot of my regulars from Flagstaff, many of whom were homeless. One of them had the exact same taste in books as me, which I discovered due to his hoarding them in a little nest on the empty shelf under the bound periodicals. Another time, my family and I were driving around town and I spied a man in a thick coat, hair in matted dreadlocks. “That’s Harvey!” I exclaimed, happy to recognize a patron outside the library (which I am not usually good at).

And that is the point I am trying to make: librarians recognize homeless people; we know them. We learn their names and know their faces. We notice when they stop showing up and pray that they’ve traveled south for the winter, as many of them do to avoid the bone chilling cold. Plenty of others stick out the season, somehow, and spend long days in the library. And the library welcomes them. Yes, these people are homeless—some living in shelters, or the woods, or out of cars. The library can’t give them a home, but we librarians can at least give them recognition and remembrance. I ask those of you who see a homeless person on the street, or outside a store, or in the library, do the same.

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