Rebecca Renard September 7, 2011
As DC Public Library's (DCPL) teen employment program coordinator, I often ask teens what it's like to work at our library. One of their biggest complaints? The fact that there are lots of homeless people here. "They stink," some teens have told me. "They talk to themselves. They're crazy." Frequently parents have echoed these sentiments and expressed concern for their children's safety.
It's true. Like many urban libraries, we attract our share of homeless patrons. And they often share the same space with teens. How could we better serve the needs of both groups? I wondered. How could we help teens feel more comfortable around homeless library users? As it happened, I was soon about to find out.
In early 2009, DCPL's Customers without Homes Committee hosted a workshop to offer sensitivity training to our staff so that we could better serve our homeless patrons. The session was sponsored by the National Coalition for the Homeless' Speakers Bureau, and featured people who spoke firsthand about their experiences of being homeless. Listening to these men and women, I soon realized that if our teens could learn more about who the homeless were as individuals, perhaps our kids would become more understanding and less antagonistic toward them. And maybe our teens would be inspired to become advocates for the homeless. With those aims in mind, I created a nine-month project to train our teen employees in portrait photography and interviewing techniques so they could photograph and collect the oral histories of some of DC's homeless residents.