Thursday, February 27, 2014

At Home Downtown: Educating Citizens and Leaders about Homelessness

Early in the history of The Surly Librarian, I started writing about public libraries as "the last publicly funded walk-in human service agencies." For example, in "Poor Richard Redux: A Manifesto" (July 2008), I wrote about the mandate of public libraries to escort all people across the digital divide:
The roots of the American public library lie with Benjamin Franklin and his peers, who believed that "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" depended upon free and equal access to information. They thought it important that information and the ability to search for, have access to and use it should not be solely the province of those privileged by prosperity or status.
We now have a culture in which only those with the advantage of computer and Internet access and the knowledge of how to use these tools can even get to much of the daily information which is most important for living successfully in American society....
The new jargon refers to those who have grown up in the online world as “digital natives.” Those of us who entered the work world before PCs, but who have had the privilege of learning to use and perhaps of owning them, are “digital immigrants....”
My concern here is for the very large population of immigrant and native residents who are “digital refugees.” Whether or not they know how to use these new technologies, our culture now expects them to join the “wired world” if they want access to the benefits and prosperity America has claimed for its successful citizens.
We didn't know when I wrote this that libraries would soon be flooded with out-of-work people and even homeless families who got kicked off the bus by the so-call Great Recession.

We certainly didn't know that governments were going require all who needed to apply for unemployment benefits or other public services—and now the Affordable Care Act—to do so online.
National Center on Family Homelessness
National Center on Family Homelessness

A broader way of exploring the public library mandate is to look at the questions "Who are our customers?" and "What are our services?" If the core of our mandate is to counterbalance privilege with information, and if public libraries are truly centers of community life, then the folks on the street are among our customers, and being involved in the public discourse about humane response to homelessness is part of our service.

Downtown Vision, Inc., (DVI) is "a nonprofit steward of downtown Jacksonville, has been a thought leader for years on what downtown has (benefits), what it needs (realistic assessment) and how to get there (a list of strategic suggestions)." The 2010 DVI white paper, "Turning the Corner: Rethinking and Remaking Downtown," is well worth studying.

A recent outgrowth of the DVI effort is the new Jacksonville website, At Home Downtown:
At Home is the meeting place for an ongoing conversation on downtown Jacksonville, homelessness, vagrancy and how these issues relate to urban revitalization. At Home will strive to provide candid and insightful conversation about these issues with the purpose of revitalizing downtown Jacksonville and improving results for our most needy. (from About)
One of the website's pages shares Ideas from other communities, another shares information about Collaboration, another Facts (such as homelessness statistics and mental health issues).

The key role of the website is to draw more people into the conversation about homelessness in Jacksonville and beyond.

I encourage your to take a look and join in.


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