Public libraries and faith-based organizations join forces to tackle homelessness

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<p><figcaption class=Tents and other structures are seen in an aerial view of a homeless settlement in Strathcona Park in April 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Darryl Dyck

The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated homelessness. Throughout the pandemic, shelters have reduced their ability to comply with public health protocols, people have lost their jobs, and affordable housing has remained elusive.

With an increase in tent cities and makeshift housing, homelessness has gained in visibility.

Local municipal authorities across Canada have been working to enforce the bylaws. Many have dismantled camps to the dismay of activists and the homeless.

These events, the media coverage, the ensuing protests and political discussions raise important questions about public space: how should it be used? Who is the audience? And the question that interests me here, what are the implications of pushing the homeless out of these “inclusive spaces”?

Stigma of homelessness in public spaces

Public spaces, such as parks and sidewalks, are generally considered everyone’s property. However, many researchers have pointed out that there are unspoken rules and expectations that include and exclude.

There are very few spaces where homeless people can feel at home.

Regulations that criminalize behaviors associated with homelessness – like begging – and hostile architecture – like a street bench with a central armrest that prevents people from lying down – are ways of pushing people out of the way. a particular space.

Excluding homeless people from public spaces can perpetuate stigma. These social stigmas usually take the form of labeling, stereotypes, separation of “us and them” and loss of social status. Sociologist Ervin Goffman has described stigma as “a spoiled identity” based on stereotypes rather than inherent qualities.

The stigma of homelessness discredits individuals about their participation in social life and limits access to social resources. These stigmas run counter to efforts to tackle homelessness because they can cause people to avoid essential services.

A man sits on a bench as camp residents wait for Toronto police and city workers to evacuate Lamport Stadium Park homeless camp in July 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Chris Young

Social infrastructure

A natural approach to tackling stigma is to bring people together by forming relationships – in personal relationships, people know the personal stories and aspirations of others, making them less inclined to rely on prejudices and harmful stereotypes. . Brené Brown, who seeks courage, vulnerability, shame and empathy, captures the essence of this idea with her slogan: “People are hard to hate up close. Move in. ”And social infrastructure is made up of the systems and environments that facilitate encounters and relationships, so social scientists have positioned social infrastructure as an antidote to social inequality and fragmentation.

Examples of social infrastructure include community centers, schools and public skating rinks; any space where people can meet and socialize. Social infrastructure is essential to the well-being of the community, it provides reasons for people to pool resources, receive and offer support, and overcome social differences.

A strong social infrastructure is accessible, secure and responsive to the changing interests, needs and challenges of the public. Excluding homeless people from public spaces does not only increase the stigma that leads to the avoidance of essential services. It may also marginalize them further from the benefits of participating in community life.

Places for the homeless

Fortunately, some institutions seek to provide public spaces for homeless people. Public libraries and faith-based organizations, such as mosques, churches and nonprofit organizations based on religious beliefs, are two examples. While public libraries and faith-based organizations are both prime examples of social infrastructure, they differ significantly.

Both have strengths and limitations when it comes to bonding. Faith-based organizations can be places where deep friendships are formed. These organizations regularly bring people together in a social and spiritual environment. However, they also have several barriers, such as history or a reputation for exclusion based on identity.

In contrast, a fundamental value of public librarianship is to remove barriers to service.

Public libraries provide free services regardless of socioeconomic status, housing and citizenship, age, gender, ability, religion, sexual orientation, race or culture . Often described as a “community center”, public libraries bring together people from all walks of life. Nonetheless, they must balance their enormous mandate to meet the information, learning and recreational needs of diverse populations with limited resources.

A big red arrow appears in the foreground.  A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books at the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library.

A woman wears a face mask and plastic gloves while browsing books at the Central Branch of the Vancouver Public Library. THE CANADIAN PRESS / Darryl Dyck

Partnership for a stronger social infrastructure

While these two institutions alone may not be able to address the problem of social stigma, examining how they provide spaces for the homeless is a good place to start.

The Parkdale branch of the Hamilton Public Library in Ontario is an example of a partnership between a faith-based organization and a public library. This library branch is located in an affordable housing complex, operated by Indwell.

Indwell describes itself as “a Christian charity that creates affordable housing communities that support people seeking health, well-being and belonging.” As the Parkdale branch only recently opened in July 2021, it offers a nascent opportunity to examine how these two types of social infrastructure merge to provide inclusive social spaces for homeless people.

Partnerships between organizations with common interests and complementary strengths hold promise when it comes to developing new solutions to complex problems.

There are several examples of faith-based organizations and public libraries sharing their spaces with social workers, health professionals and local businesses.

For example, a pilot project in Philadelphia showed that having a social worker and nurse working in a public library from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. helped connect homeless people to appropriate health care. The authors attributed part of the success of this intervention to the financially accessible community space of the public library. Partnerships allow organizations to do more than they could on their own for the homeless.

Finding creative ways to strengthen social infrastructure for marginalized groups can be an important step towards building a more equitable society after COVID-19.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: Kaitlin Wynia Baluk, McMaster University.

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Kaitlin Wynia Baluk works at the Hamilton Public Library in Ontario as a Researcher in Residence. Kaitlin receives funding from Mitacs Inc. through Mitacs Accelerate.

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