People experiencing homelessness could soon be meeting a warmer welcome from the capital’s libraries thanks to an innovative training programme for London library workers.
Libraries are particularly valued by people experiencing homelessness. They can read, get online, use the toilet or charge their phone without intrusive or difficult questions. But library staff in London have been aware for some time that homeless people's experience of visiting public libraries doesn't always live up to this ideal. Lack of confidence among staff about how to support homeless people and inconsistency in the rules applied in different boroughs can prevent them feeling as welcome as other library users.
This awareness prompted London Libraries, the London group of library membership charity Libraries Connected, to develop a new training programme for library staff to tackle these challenges and misconceptions. Working with public sector consultancy Activist Group and national charity Homeless Link, they delivered a training module to 30 staff in Barnet, Brent, Hillingdon, Islington and Newham.
In research for the programme, homeless people raised some of the barriers they face in using libraries:
"A few times I've been in new area, you want to just pop in and use [a computer] and you can't."
"[T]he whole point of going in a library was when we want to read a book and escape [the] stress of being out here.You don’t want to go in there and be more stressed."
"[Someone] might have had a bad night on the streets and it rains and they're scared on the streets."
The training introduced library staff to "trauma-informed" communication, helping them recognise how complex trauma may affect the behaviour and needs of people experiencing homelessness. The training also helped library staff understand how to signpost to specialist services, and avoid feeling they should offer support directly when it may not be appropriate.
For the library staff who participated in the training, taking a trauma-informed approach to supporting library users was a revelation. One trainee reflected that:
"[I]t was really eye-opening and helped me reflect on past responses and identify circumstances that may previously have arisen as a result of trauma but at the time was received as inappropriate aggression."
Participant feedback after the course showed levels of confidence in supporting the needs of people experiencing homelessness had risen almost three-fold. They are now looking to implement the learning and sharing with colleagues.
Caroline Rae, Head of Libraries in Newham, who attended the training course, said:
"This training has introduced trauma-informed’ approaches to library staff for the first time. As well as helping us understand the perspectives of people experiencing homelessness, many other library users in the community have experienced complex trauma, so we think this training needs to be applied more widely."
Rick Henderson, chief executive of Homeless Link, said:
"Libraries are an important community resource for people experiencing homelessness. However, with 94% of people facing homelessness having experienced trauma, according to Oasis Community Housing research, we saw an opportunity to improve the welcome they receive and ultimately encourage more people though the doors. We’re delighted that more people and communities are now set to benefit from this project upskilling library staff."