about us


| Next >

Are Public Libraries Criminalizing Poor People?

In the wake of recent news reports, the Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force wishes to express concern about public libraries adopting punitive policies clearly targeted at homeless people.

Odor policies” of the sort enacted by San Luis Obispo County, California, and the “civility campaign” launched by Salt Lake City Library to “teach the homeless, children and others how to behave” (Deseret Morning News, 3/9/05) are at best misguided and at worst contribute to the criminalization of poor people.

Libraries are now participating in a deliberate process that geographer Don Mitchell calls “the annihilation of space by law”:

The anti-homeless laws being passed in city after city in the United States work in a pernicious way: by redefining what is acceptable behavior in public space, by in effect annihilating the spaces in which people must live, these laws seek simply to annihilate homeless people themselves … we are creating a world in which a whole class of people cannot be—simply because they have no place to be.

Homeless people are forced to live and dwell in public places. Why? Because we fail to create adequate, dignified shelter and affordable housing options that provide private space—among other basic human needs—for our most vulnerable citizens.

We want to clarify that poor hygiene and homelessness are conditions of extreme poverty, not types of behavior—a view inadvertently promoted by “problem patron” literature in recent years.

We challenge policy makers and front-line librarians to review the American Library Association’s Policy 61 (“Library Services for Poor People”) and ask themselves the following questions:

  1. Do I understand the scope of poverty in my community and its human face?

  2. Are our programs and services inclusive of all poor people and their needs?

  3. Do we actively partner with social service providers and anti-poverty groups?

  4. Do we advocate for public funding of programs that help poor people?

  5. Do our actions address core problems or simply treat superficial symptoms?

Jeremy Waldron, Director of the Center for Law and Philosophy at Columbia University, describes the best alternative to what we view as a disturbing trend:

Fairness demands that … so long as people live among us in a condition of homelessness, our normative definitions of community must be responsive to their predicament … not only in articulating some vague sense of social obligation to ‘do something’ about the problem, but in accepting that the very definition of community must accommodate the stake that the homeless have—as community members—in the regulation of public places … But, as things stand, the call is most often heard in connection with schemes of regulation that simply try to wish homeless members of the community away.

The democratic principles that govern our work demand a humane and informed response to people struggling with homelessness and poverty.

With this goal in mind, we encourage much-needed conversation about these issues and recommend the resources listed below.


Hunger, Homelessness & Poverty Task Force
Social Responsibilities Round Table
of the American Library Association

NOTE: The opinions expressed here are the views of the HHP Task Force and do not represent or imply the endorsement of SRRT or ALA membership as a whole.


American Library Association. ALA Policy 61 (“Library Services for Poor People”).

Collins, Ariel. Bibliography on Library Services to Poor People (2003).

How to Use ALA Policy 61

Mitchell, Don. The Right to the City: Social Justice and the Fight for Public Space [Chaps. 5 & 6]. New York: The Guilford Press, 2003.

Poor People and Library Services. Karen Venturella, ed. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland & Co., 1998.

Waldron, Jeremy. “Homelessness and Community.” University of Toronto Law Journal Vol. 50, #4 (Autumn 2000): 371-406.

For more information, contact

John Gehner, Coordinator

* * *

| Next >