Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations
Support NHPR and the NH Food Bank this holiday season.

Dallas Library Embraces Role As Haven For The Homeless


In a lot of cities, homeless people use libraries as places to rest, especially when the weather's bad. The Dallas Public Library system has chosen to embrace this role. Courtney Collins of member station KERA reports, librarians aren't just tolerating; they're welcoming the homeless.

COURTNEY COLLINS, BYLINE: Dallas in the winter isn't exactly Siberia. On the day I spoke with 55-year-old David Jackson, though, it snowed, and the temps didn't crack 30 degrees.

DAVID JACKSON: It's cold. It's dark. And you've got to lay your head down in a spot that you feel safe. You just can't just lay down on anywhere.

COLLINS: Jackson usually sleeps under a bridge. He's been homeless for 20 years and struggles with addiction and mental illness. He ducked into the library lobby on a cold day to find shelter. He says he always feels welcome here.

JACKSON: The library's a good place for the homeless. It's warm. You've got different floors to go to. You've got your own space. You know, you ain't crowded.

COLLINS: A few floors above him, it's a little more crowded, a little less quiet. The library's afternoon keyboard class might best be described as beautiful chaos.


COLLINS: This particular afternoon, nine people are playing nine keyboards all at once. One of them is 65-year-old Jerry Bryant. He has an apartment now but spent two years living on the street.

JERRY BRYANT: It was miserable. It was, like - no water to bathe, nowhere to brush your teeth.

COLLINS: He says when you're homeless, you're lonely. Finding somewhere to belong - even a simple music class at the library - is a big deal. Here, the instructor is happy to see anyone who wants to learn.

BRYANT: It's everyone welcome. He's got his arms wide open. He is happy to teach.

COLLINS: The arms-wide-open philosophy is what the Dallas Public Library wants to be known for, especially with regards to homeless patrons.

JO GIUDICE: We started out about five years ago really engaging them as they came into the building. Simply smiling and making eye contact and getting to know them as human beings was our first step, and it made a huge difference.

COLLINS: Jo Giudice is the city's director of libraries. She says the attitude adjustment is working - fewer outbursts from homeless people inside the library and not one official complaint against a homeless person in a year. The downtown library has removed all the no signs - no eating, no drinking, no sleeping - and replaced them with signs that say things like, respect each other. On days when the temperatures dip below freezing, the library opens early.

GIUDICE: Around 7:30, 8 o'clock in the morning, depending on when we get it together, we do open the doors on the first floor and allow folks - everyone in. And we take an extra step, and we actually serve hot coffee.

COLLINS: The Dallas Library isn't alone in trying to serve the homeless. The San Francisco Public Library has a social worker on staff. Baltimore has a Community Technology Center. San Diego's main library hired a mental health caseworker. And while Dallas also has programs to help with job skills and health insurance enrollment, it's the small gestures that resonate most with people at the library.


COLLINS: Jerry Bryant, for one, can't wait to make a little music just like his grandparents used to.

BRYANT: You know, they was church people. And they - I see them, how they be playing guitars, pianos and tambourines and making a joyful noise. And so I decide I'd give it a try.

COLLINS: And what better place to learn than his local library? For NPR News, I'm Courtney Collins in Dallas.