Unhoused but Unlimited

Homelessness in America is a long-historied tragedy with far too many victims struggling for survival. From tent cities to soup kitchens, the homeless, or unhoused, are an often ignored group of people in need of assistance and compassion. In major metropolitan areas, this is a significant problem. Las Vegas is one of the largest cities in America, and its number of homeless in 2021, according to The Guardian, was “5,083 people… on any given night, 55% were unsheltered.” A survey done in August 2021, “…called the Rafael Rivera Plan for Ward 3 to address needs. The study area included parts of Charleston Boulevard and Eastern Avenue. In January, the city released the results. Respondents included 400 residents and approximately 200 businesses. The results revealed the homeless population was the biggest concern…” With thousands of people on the streets nightly,  Las Vegas-Clark County Library decided to do something longer-term to help them. Located in an area with a substantial amount of unhoused people, they saw the need to connect these individuals with the resources they’d need to improve their lives. This action is a direct reflection of their mission statement:

“The Las Vegas-Clark County Library District nurtures the social, economic, and educational well-being of people and communities. The District is committed to building communities of people who can come together to pursue their individual and group aspirations”.

Libraries are traditionally a place of community and learning, but this particular library’s initiative was on a new level. Per a Library Journal article,:

“The Las Vegas–Clark County Library District (LVCCLD), in partnership with the Nevada Homeless Alliance (NHA) and the Nevada Partnership for Homeless Youth (NPHY),… launched a successful cell phone lending program to provide smartphones to people experiencing homelessness… The phones—which are preloaded with LVCCLD apps and resources, as well as phone numbers and contact information for multiple Las Vegas and Clark County social services and employment agencies—are loaned out for 18 months.

Putting these resources directly into the hands of those who need them most is a noble and novel idea. Funded by “a $200,000 grant provided by the Institute of Museum and Library Services and the Nevada State Library through the American Rescue Plan Act, the program is believed to be the first of its kind developed by a public library system.” It’s a significant step and example to other libraries of a new outreach method using grant money to make a huge difference for unhoused indivivduals.

When provided with the tools needed to rehabilitate their own lives, the homeless are empowered. In the Library Journal article, the director is quoted stating, “These devices are a lifeline, reconnecting [recipients] with family, social resources, educational and employment assistance, and so much more….” It’s an incredible initiative, and resulted in immediate positive outcomes. The criteria for deciding who received a phone wasn’t complicated. They had to be without a phone and actually homeless. Once that was confirmed the person was given their phone. “The lending criteria the organizations established was straightforward, he said. If a person experiencing homelessness did not already have a device, they were eligible for the program… two weeks after the program’s launch in April, “someone reached out to the Nevada Homeless Alliance and said, ‘I’ve got a home now, and I wouldn’t have been able to be contacted if I didn’t have this phone.’ It’s also connecting them with family.” The press release published September 1, 2022 also stated, “Several cell phone borrowers have reported that they were able to secure housing because they now have a phone number that housing agencies could call to notify them that their applications were approved…” With the tools to help themselves, a great difference is being made in their lives.

Libraries have long been a source of assistance and support for the unhoused. This is a requirement of public libraries and a long-established practice due to policy established by the ALA Policy Manual section B.8:

“The American Library Association promotes equal access to information for all persons and recognizes the need to respond to people experiencing poverty, which include people experiencing homelessness, in the United States. Therefore, it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in supporting these communities, so they may participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies. Concrete programs of training and development are needed to prepare library staff to identify needs and deliver relevant services to people experiencing poverty.”

With a multitude of resources being made available daily to impoverished and unhoused individuals through public libraries, there is bound to be a positive impact made. If you’d like to help make a difference, please reach out to your local library.

By Gretchen Hendrick Gardella, MLIS

Gretchen Hendrick Gardella is a Librarian with administrative, research, and vast technical skills. Ms. Gardella brings over 16 years of experience working in academic and public libraries to the discussion.