How Public Libraries Respond to Crises Involving Patrons Experiencing Homelessness: Multiple Perspectives of the Role of the Public Library Social Worker
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Due to a shortage of affordable housing, gaps in social welfare infrastructure, and the criminalization of homelessness, public libraries find themselves providing daytime shelter to patrons experiencing homelessness. Their needs and crises have created demands on staff and security that exceed their training and role. Sometimes police are involved, exposing patrons to possible arrest. To fill this knowledge and service gap, libraries have begun hiring social workers. Early research on the broad role of social workers suggests they are changing how libraries respond to crises with patrons experiencing homelessness in four keyways: by providing an option to calling 911; influencing code of conduct implementation, serving patrons, and equipping staff. However, no study has given an in-depth explanation of how social workers are changing libraries’ responses to crises with patrons experiencing homelessness. The purpose of this study is to explain how the role of the social worker influences how libraries respond when patrons experiencing homelessness are in crises. Considered through lenses of role theory, social cognitive theory, and the humanization framework, this embedded multiple-case study of three U.S. urban libraries collected 91 surveys and conducted 46 Zoom interviews. It includes the perspectives of 107 participants across six roles: patrons experiencing homelessness, social workers, front-facing staff, security, location managers, and CEOs. The social workers’ influence was perceived to reduce behavior incidents, exclusions, and arrests around three themes: (1) being an option, with subthemes of in-house referrals and de-escalation; (2) running interference, with subthemes of low barrier access and barrier-busting services; and (3) buffering, with subthemes of equipping, influencing code of conduct implementation, and advocating and being present during security and police interactions. Three models of library social work and their impact on the social worker’s role of de-escalation were identified and described: The Sign Up and Summon Model, the Outreach and Summon Model, and the Social Work Center Model. In addition, a commingled rival was found: the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement. The implications of the findings include recommendations for structuring library social work practice to reduce exclusions and arrests of patrons experiencing homelessness.