Julie Ann Winkelstein worked as a librarian for the Alameda County Library system for 20 years: from jails and prison librarian to Family Literacy coordinator to children’s and young adult librarian.

In 2012 she received her PhD in Communication and Information from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, where her research topic was homeless lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and questioning (LGBTQ) and public libraries.

We’ve taken this opportunity to ask Julie Ann about her experience.

We hope you enjoy it !

NAPLE Sister Libraries (NSL): Before we talk about your work, we would love to know how you got interested in libraries?

Julie: I was running a small business, where I helped people after they had a baby called “We Follow the Stork”. I happened to go into my local library and they were looking for a library clerk, just somebody to check out things. So I applied and then, almost immediately, it was an opening to work as a library assistant in jails and prisons. I was terrified to do it but I applied anyway. I spent seven years doing that and it really changed my life, I had so many preconceptions about people who are incarcerated, and then about our system. I met some really amazing people, and I got to do social justice work and be employed at the same time. And then I worked in a jail literacy program where we helped people who were incarcerated move up in their print literacy skills. And I ended up working in a bookmobile and I worked in a branch as a children’s librarian and a young adult librarian. And I was also in charge of a project for creating materials for people who are speakers of languages besides English. The wonderful thing about public libraries, is that there’s so much variety, so I got to do a lot of different things.

NSL: How did you become interested in working with homeless people as a librarian?

Julie: After being working in libraries for about 20 years, I was really concerned about the lack of diversity in the United States: about 88% of the librarians are white. And that really bothered me a lot, so I decided I would go into a PhD program and work on diversity. But when I got there, my advisor handed me a newspaper clipping one day, about youth –there’s over 2 million youth, unaccompanied youth in the United States- who are experiencing homelessness, and up to 40% of those are LGBTQ plus. And that was so shocking to me. And when I looked around at that time, there weren’t social workers, so I decided that was important to do. And also it combined my interest in diversity, because homeless is a confluence of so many different things, as you probably know. There’s a lot of different aspects that includes intolerance, at least in the United States and probably other places. I would say libraries in the States do quite a lot social labor.

NSL: What examples of good practices do you know of in this field?

Julie: I have a lot of examples, actually. I think the most important thing is partnerships, that libraries reach out to local organizations or local schools, businesses… anybody just to create as many partnerships as they can to help support people who are unhoused. There’s a library that did a one-day mental health day where they had a mental health fair on their library; they went over to shelters and invited people to come in and they gave them a tour of the library. There are people in New York City who go into shelters and do programming with the young people. There are libraries that during the pandemic were taking their hotspots for internet connection to communities and made sure that people had access to the internet. And they also check out devices they provide. There’s a library in the United States that during the pandemic put out a power strip where people could come and charge the devices they loaned out. There’s a huge range of what’s being done, but it depends a lot on getting to know your community. And I think that’s the important part of partnerships. Where people’s liberation start is to know what are the needs in your community, who is experiencing homelessness, why are they experiencing homelessness, what services are already available, what are the barriers for them accessing those services and accessing your library services.

NSL: What will you say happens when homeless or any other person who with these kinds of needs goes to the library with the other users? Is there any conflict?

Julie: There are conflicts, although not in all libraries. And I think a lot of that is guidance from the library, their attitude. If somebody comes into a library and complains that there’s somebody there who looks like they might be experiencing homelessness, the library can either say: yeah, you know, we have all these rules, we’re trying to get rid of them. Or they can say: we welcome everyone, and we support them. So I think a lot of it is the environment at the library. If the library creates an environment that is welcoming and safe for people experiencing homelessness, then the people in the community are more likely to be accepting. And one of the things that library can do is to destigmatize homelessness to try to lower the barriers for people experiencing homelessness, don’t accept that people say it’s a bad thing and blame people for being homeless. There’s a lot of blame, like it’s your fault, why don’t you just get a job? Why don’t you just get a house, you know, what’s wrong with you? So there’s a lot of training that needs to go on staff and public training, inviting people in who are experiencing homelessness to do programming. Or to have them do some sort of display so that people get to know them, have a conversation. All of those things, I think can help change the mindset of the people in the community. But it’s really important to destigmatize it, especially for the youth that I work with. Young people tend to not use the word homeless when they’re talking about their lives, even though they are because it’s such a stigmatized term. So if you can create an environment where it’s okay to talk about your housing status, I think that really helps.

NSL: What new challenges are libraries facing due to the pandemic situation we are going through in relation with homeless people?

Julie: There is going to be more people who are unemployed and people who have lost their homes, there’s going to be a lot of people experiencing homelessness. And there’s going to be a lot more challenges for libraries. And staff training is the thing that I really recommend, bringing in outside people to talk about all of the challenges. So library staff are not prepared. And they need help, they need support.

NSL: What are libraries doing to help the homeless right now?

Julie: Different libraries are doing different things. I teach a class on people experiencing homeless, libraries on homelessness, and one of the things I really emphasize is that it can feel overwhelming. For one thing, I think librarians feel like if that is their job to fix everything. And if you’d say no, it’s not your job to fix it, you just choose one small thing that you could do, and do that. And I think that there are some libraries that are doing that, maybe what they do is provide a hotspot, or they go to a shelter, or they have somebody come in and talk to them, or they do training. So I think that choosing one small thing that could be done, even if it’s just having a conversation with somebody that comes in and looks like they might be unhoused, learning their name, welcoming them, and listening to them and helping them create connections. That’s a very tiny thing that can be done and it can have a powerful impact. It doesn’t have to be big, what you do: anything is better than doing nothing.

NSL: What should they never do?

Julie: You should never have a lot of signs around that have all the rules, and especially if they’re written negatively. So don’t have signs that say: don’t do this, don’t do that. Won’t, can’t… all those negative words. I think there should be no signs about behaviors and people being policed in a library. And if you have policies, have a copy available somewhere and then refer to it but don’t post it around. Don’t create this negative hostile environment. Another is to assume that everybody who’s experiencing homelessness is going to be obvious, because probably the majority of the people who are experiencing homelessness, you can’t tell by looking at them. Don’t assume when somebody comes to the desk they have a safe place to sleep the night before, don’t assume they have enough food… Assume that you don’t know and listen to them. And then don’t have any rules that will create barriers: if you have a rule that says you have to have a picture ID to get a library card with a permanent address on it, you’re going to immediately exclude a bunch of people. Don’t have rules that say you can’t bring in large amounts of bags on. And I understand why libraries have that, but it means that people whose entire life is now in bags because they got kicked out of their house can’t come in and use your resources.

When I was doing my interviewing for my research, I went to a drop-in shelter for young people who are unannounced and their rule was: be respectful. It didn’t have any other rules posted because they felt like that covered everything. And it was great people come into the library. When there’s a lot of rules, they think: Oh no, I’m going to break one of those rules that makes them very nervous. So don’t have a lot of rules posted, have as many supportive services as you can. And be careful of the language. Don’t call people “homeless”, don’t say “mentally ill”. There’s a lot of terms like that in the US where people are sort of clumped together. Instead, say people experiencing homelessness or people who are on housed or people who aren’t stably housed.

NSL: How can libraries help the emotional needs of homeless LGBTQ people?

Julie: A start would be to have an understanding of what it means to be LGBTQ plus, what it means to be non-binary, what it means to be transgender or gender expansive. Learn the terms, and then listen to them. And then have indicators in the library that you are supportive of people who are LGBTQ plus. If it’s a library in a liberal area in the United States, they could have a rainbow flag. If it’s a more conservative area, that’s not going to happen so in that case what I would recommend is having a little tiny rainbow on your badge have some indicators somewhere that it’s a safe place because people, especially the young people, they’re scanning the environment all the time.

And then creating connections with local organizations so that somebody comes in and they have specific needs like they’re trans and they want to look for hormones, for example, you know where to send them, what’s called a warm handoff and social services. And having a collection that support that, and even displays that reflect their lives. There’s two ways to do that: there’s one library in San Francisco that has a double collection. So they have a collection of resources that are fiction and nonfiction that are for people who are LGBTQ plus they have a rainbow sticker on the spine. But they have the same books in the general collection, so that if somebody feels threatened by going over to this particular collection, they could walk by it, see some titles, and then look at the general collection. They also have a brochure that has some list of recommended places to go. And also recommended resources.

So, what you’re saying is: we like you just the way you are, and we want to support you, and we don’t stigmatize it, and we totally are behind you and want to support you. And for the young people that I’ve interviewed, that’s just critical to feel safe, they had such bad experiences in their life, they’ve been kicked out of their house because of their gender, or because of their sexual orientation, or they wouldn’t foster care or some sort of care where they were treated really poorly, they can’t even stay in a shelter because it’s transphobic or homophobic. So to be in a place that accepts who they are and supports who they are and is interested in who they are, and wants to make connections is just an incredible gift to them. And they’ve experienced incredible amount of trauma. So that’s another kind of awareness. They may be very defensive, they may be angry, and just knowing that’s because of the trauma, and you just be respectful and listen and don’t push but make it obvious that you’re there for them.

NSL: When we were preparing the interview, we read several articles and interviews about compassion fatigue. Can you tell us about compassion fatigue and how we can help combat it?

Julie: Librarians want to help, they’re helpful people. But if you just keep helping and helping, and things don’t change, it feels just overwhelming, you feel out of control, you feel like all of these social inequities are somehow now sitting on your desk, and it’s your job to fix them. That’s compassion fatigue. And people can get very burnt out very quickly if they don’t have some sort of support. In an article I was reading, two librarians were talking about compassion fatigue, and one of them felt very supported by their administration, and the other one was not like that. And the one that was not like that ended up leaving the library, and the other person stayed because he felt supported. What really feels important to me is an awareness that it’s not your job to fix people’s lives. And I tell people: if somebody comes into your library and says: Can you recommend a preschool for my three year old? It’s not your job to go interview all the preschools out there and find a place and make sure the three-year-old is safe and happy and you don’t call them up and say: How was the preview? But somehow, when it comes to these big systemic inequities, it feels it’s harder for us to separate out and know we’re there to provide. We’re there to be side by side with this person, but it’s not our job to fix it. And the people who come into the library who is experiencing homelessness, don’t expect us to fix it. They don’t consider themselves victims, they don’t want to be patronized, to be pitied. They don’t need any of that stuff that adds to the compassion fatigue, they need somebody who makes connections and offers them and supports them. And the other thing that I mean besides there’s a lot of self-care that comes with compassion fatigue: take walks, get somebody to take your place at the desk, all that stuff. But I think most of all, it’s that feeling of powerlessness that causes compassion fatigue. And if you choose something small that you can do, and you succeed in doing that, it really helps. I really believe in action, even if it’s small action, I think we don’t talk enough about aspects of it. We talk more about self-care and all that, which is great, but if you take a day off from work and come back, and you feel the same way, it’s not really in the long run going to help you.

NSL: Any other tips you want to share with the people who is going to read your interview?

Julie: I think we are quite far away from this reality. And this situation we have gone through is been quite important, in the sense there are lots of people who have lost everything. And libraries, they’re always there for all the citizens. And they can do important things, even though if they are small. They don’t have to do great things, maybe just little by little. One of the things that I encouraged libraries to think about doing is human libraries: inviting people who are experiencing homelessness or people who are having housing insecurity, lost their job… to be the books, because I think it’s an opportunity for one on one conversations.

The other thing is voting: there are people to vote for more supportive of some of the social reforms that need to be made, or creating housing or creating jobs, or whatever it is that would be supportive for people. Libraries being involved in helping people to register to vote. In the United States you have to register to vote, you have to show an ID, we’ve made it almost impossible to vote if you’re not housed, and especially if you’re experiencing poverty, or homelessness, so a bigger way of addressing this and being really involved in helping people connect to the services or the resources they need, I think is critical.

Telehealth is another thing. Telehealth is where people can’t go to a medical professional, so they use on the Internet. Libraries could facilitate telehealth by providing a room providing a connection. They aren’t providing the doctors themselves, but they can provide a space and a connection. And there are libraries in the United States that are doing telehealth in rural areas where people can’t get to a doctor. That’s also another thing you could do with people who are unhoused or are experiencing some of these traumas after the pandemic.

Having things that you check out that are kind of not considered like checking out: being able to check out tools for example, bicycles. Somebody suggested if you could check out a house, I love that. I think was suggesting and that would be great, for sure.

More information: https://www.nicheacademy.com/blog/community-homelessness-what-can-libraries-do