An enthralled crowd of mostly public librarians from all over the state attended a day-long Office of Library and Information Services (OLIS) training, “The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness,” at the Central branch of Cranston Public Library on December 11, 2019. Presenter Ryan Dowd is the Executive Director of the second largest homeless shelter in Illinois and is well-known both nationally and abroad for his expertise on the topic.
Dowd, who toured the U.S. with filmmaker Emilio Estevez to promote “The Public,” the 2018 movie about the intersection of library services and marginalized patrons, brought plenty of experience, compassion, and humor to his presentation. He runs a “low-threshold shelter” that will accept “just about anyone” and sees a great deal of colorful behavior on a daily basis. During Dowd’s many years of working in the field, he has observed that people experiencing homelessness frequently struggle to follow the rules wherever they are, for a variety of reasons that were made clear during the session. His training program is designed to educate library staff about the need for “empathy-driven enforcement” of the rules in the face of such complex circumstances.
Ryan Dowd addresses a rapt audience; photo courtesy of Sarah Bouvier, CPL Communications Manager
Dowd divided the day into four parts: (1) understanding how the lives of people experiencing homelessness are very different from others’ lives, (2) examining when and what kinds of punishment works and doesn’t work, (3) the “psychology of voluntary compliance,” and (4) practical advice for synthesizing elements of parts one through three by using “tools of empathy and psychology.”
Empathy took center stage in every discussion and is the driving force behind Dowd’s “pennies in the cup” concept. His premise is that by earning goodwill (represented by those metaphorical pennies, which also can be called “positive relationship credits”) in advance—by going out of their way to be kind to all patrons but especially to marginalized ones—library staff are much more likely to see voluntary compliance from those they serve, including from patrons who may have nothing left to lose and who otherwise may be prone to exhibiting aggressive reactions to any kind of confrontation.
Ryan Dowd explains the three types of homelessness; photo courtesy of Sarah Bouvier, CPL Communications Manager
The complexity of the homelessness issue and how libraries can and should respond to it was not lost on the organizers of the event. In fact, this “was an easy decision,” according to information provided by OLIS staff member Nicolette Baffoni, because Dowd’s “training addresses the root causes of cyclical poverty and trauma that many people experiencing homelessness face, while also providing a vast array of tools to build relationships, increase empathy and, as a result, increase compliance with rules.”
Attendees seemed to grasp the value of the training and gave it high praise. According to Baffoni, “86% of [evaluation] survey respondents strongly agreed that they learned something and were more confident in applying what they learned.” “It was the shortest 7-hour training I think I’ve ever sat through,” wrote one participant. Another commented that the “staff from [my library] who took the workshop continue to bring up what they learned in almost every meeting I have attended since the training.” Someone else pointed out that Dowd’s “techniques can be used to smooth over relations with any kind of patron.”
Appreciative CPL staff members with Ryan Dowd; photo courtesy of Sarah Bouvier, CPL Communications Manager
From learning how the brain responds to trauma to understanding the difference between “dignity culture” and “honor culture” to recognizing that forms of non-verbal communication are just as impactful as verbal forms, the workshop was jam-packed with useful tools and information. OLIS hopes to explore ways to bring Dowd’s resources to a wider audience. His 2018 book, The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness : An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone, provides the basis for the training session, and its companion website can be visited at homelesslibrary.com