Library and sector support for people experiencing or threatened by homelessness

In response to a homelessness crisis, amplified as part of Libraries Week 2021, and in the lead-up to World Homeless Day (October 10), The Reading Agency and Libraries Connected invited people working in or with the library sector to a panel discussion around the public library offer for people experiencing or threatened by homelessness.

At the event we were welcomed by John, the Lord John Bird MBE, an activist, publisher and Crossbench member of the House of Lords who founded The Big Issue. He discussed how, as a consequence of Covid-19, we can expect to see an increased number of people experiencing homelessness, citing the Local Government Association, who last year talked about the fact that there might be about 400,000, people who would be evicted if they didn’t pay their rents or their mortgages, potentially leading to hundreds of thousands of people ending up homeless.

“I want to stress the fact that we are entering the biggest crisis I have ever known around homelessness.”
– John, the Lord Bird MBE

Lord Bird also offered his solidarity to every library in this country because, in his words, ‘libraries are an incredible place where homeless people can feel welcome. Where homeless people can feel that they are real, ordinary human beings and they’re not being picked out as almost a part of another species. They are people who feel totally and utterly at home when they go into libraries.’

Award-winning investigative journalist, podcaster and author Maeve McClenaghan also joined us to share her experiences of writing No Fixed Abode: Life and Death Among the UK’s Forgotten Homeless (Picador, 2020). She described how, when she began her investigation into the rate of mortality linked to homelessness, she was faced with a complete absence of data; nobody was keeping a record. So, she set about gathering it herself through meticulous research and interviews with people experiencing homelessness.

“I saw libraries providing this, this refuge, this place of warmth and security for people. Sometimes in the most practical of ways.”
– Maeve McLenaghan

We also heard from Jo Foster Murdoch and Caroline Varney Bowers from Norfolk Library Service and Caroline Rae from Newham Library Service, who shared the steps their teams have been taking to support people experiencing or threatened by homelessness, including connecting with local charities, shelters and soup kitchens, undertaking training, introducing accessible membership and organising workshops.

“There seems to be a significant appetite with homeless sector organisations to work with libraries more strategically.”
– Caroline Rae, Newham Library Service

We also had some closing comments from Sue Ball MBE, Stock and Services Manager at Staffordshire Libraries and chair of the public library health group with key findings and best practice shared by libraries delivered by Debbie Hicks MBE, Creative Director at The Reading Agency. Lord Bird’s colleague, Chris Falchi-Stead, Director of Sales & Operations at The Big Issue. The session offered both a sobering insight into the scale of the homelessness crisis affecting people in the UK today and an inspiring look at the work currently being undertaken by the library sector to best support people experiencing or threatened by homelessness, with lots of ideas as to how this work can be developed going forward.

Next steps

Following on from the event we have produced a report drawing together the findings from the call out and event. The report offers examples of the current library services available to people experiencing or threatened by homelessness and suggests priorities for a framework for the public library offer in this field. This report is available to download here.

On Tuesday 22 March we will be hosting a discussion and workshop to explore these priorities further and develop an action plan for the public library offer for people experiencing or threatened by homelessness.

Find out more and register a free place.

The Reading Agency

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