The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness

17 07 2018

In his book, ‘The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness,’ Ryan Dowd provides insight and practical tools for anyone (but especially librarians) who encounters people living with and in the stress of homelessness. The levity and clarity of Dowd’s writing provides a functional wisdom, which he refers to as the “tools” he uses at Hesed House, the second-largest shelter in Illinois. Dowd began there as a 13-year-old and now serves as executive director.

These balms or alms for the mind are as mad as a methodology used to corral a catalog as large as the Library of Congress, though with much cooler names.

Praying Ninja, in which you keep your palms together in front of you and use them both to point and gesture, demonstrating an openness and showing you are not threatened while still being able to defend yourself if necessary. Jane’s Addiction (not the band), in which visualizing that you are talking to a person trapped in a body hooked on a substance allows you to express empathy more easily than in some situations. There is also The Oprah, The Barack Obama and The Marijuana Plant tool, which it seems a lot of people in Washington use daily.

The ‘Psy’ alms (the Greek word for “mind”), or psalms, are perhaps not as poetic as the ones belonging to the desert wanderers of the Judeo-Christian tradition, yet the compassion, clarity and wisdom found within demonstrate the calming effect that empathy-guided interactions have on a stressed and emotionally drained patron of the biblioteca, or library.

I had an opportunity to ask Ryan a few questions.

Topaz: What in your experience do librarians not understand about homelessness?
Ryan Dowd: So it’s less what librarians don’t understand and more what people who have lived a middle-class, suburban, semi-privileged life don’t understand, which librarians are no better or no worse than anybody else. In our country we do such a great job of what I call “economic apartheid,” which is keeping poor people in certain areas, having middle-class people have their run of the land and having rich people behind walls.

There just aren’t many places where people of different socioeconomic backgrounds meet and physically interact. And that’s kind of what makes libraries so fascinating and so honestly volatile is that public libraries are one of the last places in our country where all the socioeconomic groups meet in the same building. They’re super critical to the future of our democracy.

T: I really like the phrase you used, “economic apartheid.” We live in Seattle and one of the names of Seattle is The Emerald City. Your book mentions Oz. It’s almost like there is a wizard, an “Ignore the man behind the curtain.” By these economic apartheids, we’re not allowed to speak or interact with people outside our social economic realms, and therefore no change is actually going to be made.
RD: Exactly. Exactly. But libraries go against that trend. Because there’s not a rich person’s library, a middle-class person’s library, a poor person’s library. There’s one library. And that makes libraries super important to our country, but it also means a lot of ticked-off middle-class people.

T: I think that’s a really excellent observation. I remember when libraries had card catalogues. If I were to look up an Ursula K. Le Guin book, “A Wizard of Earthsea,” then I would get the same answer as any other person in the library. These days, we can get different answers than people who have different ages, who have different economics, different search engines. And that’s a way economic apartheid is unwittingly being continued.
RD: Not only do you get different answers, the more money you have you can get better answers you get. You can pay for better answers basically with a faster phone, a better phone, better subscription services you have. The disadvantage for people who don’t have access to resources like that is even greater.

T: What are some of the ways you believe body language enhances or discourages communication in libraries?
RD: It’s not just libraries. Body language is so key. My day job, by the way, is I’m the executive director of the second-largest homeless shelter in Illinois. So most of my experience is in the context of a shelter, not the context of libraries. I don’t know how many times where there’s some kind of blowup. Either a guest yells at a staff or takes a swing at a staff. And I’m debriefing with the staff member afterwards and they tell me what they said, y’know, “I said this, and he said this, and I said this.” And then I go pull up the video camera and I say, “Wow, you might have said that, but your body language was aggressive and dismissive all at the same time. So you might have said something nice, but your body language was really nasty.” We tend to focus on using the right words. We say nice words, but our body language is just projecting contempt and dismissiveness and aggressiveness and all these nasty things, and then we pretend, “Well I said the right things. I said nice words, therefore I was nice.” And we dismiss the fact that we rolled our eyes, that we had our hands on our hips, that we were glaring at the person — all these things that send a message of nastiness.

T: I’m honestly completely guilty of that.
RD: Oh, everybody is.

T: It’s one of the ways we’re taught to be socially nice, but my tone of voice is chisel or blade.
RD: Nonviolence is something I’ve spent a lot of time studying, and one of the things I’ve kind of realized here is that nonviolence teaches you how to speak truth to power, if you’re the oppressed and someone else has the power. You’re the Middle Eastern Jew against the Roman Empire back 2,000 years ago. If you’re the Mexican immigrant standing up to the United States government. If someone else has the power and you don’t, nonviolence is how you speak truth to that power. What I try to teach is how to speak with power. What do you do when you’re the Roman Empire, when you’re the United States government, when you’re the shelter staff and you have 3,000 times as much power as the person living there? Or you’re the library security guard and you have 10,000 times as much power as a patron? How do you ethically deal with someone who have so much bloody less power than you that this is not a contest in any shape or form?

T: These laws that have created homelessness, essentially are nothing less than the extension of the laws that were used to justify the annihilation of all the Native people of the country. We’re not enslaving people any longer, but this economic apartheid is a form of forced servitude and so, when you have the power and a position of authority, you are by definition practicing the side of the aggressor. At least in my opinion.
RD: There’s nothing inherently wrong in being the one with power. It’s how you use it. Somebody is going to have more power in any interaction. But if you abuse that power, that’s a problem. If you use your power to crush poor people, when you use your power to kick poor people, kick homeless people out of libraries, that’s not an ethical use of power.

T: Have you studied martial arts? Some of the phrases in your book reminded me of Sun Tzu and the philosophies espoused in “The Art of War.” “When you have power, appear weak, and when you are weak, appear to have power.” I believe that directly speaks to the ethics of “I’m the authority here. I’m the one with power. How do I show this person humanity without being threatening?”
RD: Just because society’s told you that poor people are lesser than you — which just, by the way, is just not true — you don’t have to make someone lesser than you. The irony of this all is when you treat someone like a human, they treat you back like a human being more often than not. But when you treat someone like they’re inferior to you, they tend to lash out.

We think that the best way to have a calm, safe library; a calm, safe homeless shelter; a calm, safe whatever — fill-in-the-blank — is to use our power to force people into compliance, and to really make sure that they know who’s in charge and who’s in power and who carries the biggest stick. And that’s just not true. The best way to a calm, safe library; a calm, safe nonprofit; a calm, safe homeless shelter — whatever — is to actually treat people with human dignity. And when you treat people with human dignity, they tend to respond in kind. One of the things I try to teach in the training is lead people into the behavior you want from them, don’t follow them in what you don’t like about what they’re doing. This idea that if you’re a jerk to people, they tend to be a jerk back. Regardless, homeless, non-homeless, millionaire, non-millionaire. If you treat them with human dignity and you treat them like they’re of equal value to you — which they are — they tend to respond well. I had a librarian say, “I can’t believe I flew you out to tell my staff how to be nice to homeless people, but I guess I had to.” It’s more nuanced than just how to be nice, but the essence of what I teach is, if you treat people with human dignity, more often than not they will follow your rules and not cause trouble. It’s a pretty simple message but it takes me three hours to say it, or 250 pages of a book.

T: Where did you find all the quotes at the beginning of the chapters?
RD: Purely I just googled librarian quotes and whichever ones I thought were totally badass I just wrote them down.

T: You said homeless people are just like people.
RD: In almost every way, people experiencing homelessness are identical to everyone else. But there are some differences, but those differences come out of injustice. It’s actually dangerous, the idea that everyone is exactly the same. Here’s why that’s dangerous: It completely glosses over the massive disadvantages and massive injustices that have been perpetuated against people. If I say everybody is exactly the same, what it means basically is you and I had the exact same opportunities in life and you screwed it up and I didn’t. And it completely glosses over the fact that if you were raised in poverty, you are much more likely to be poor as an adult than an individual who was raised — you know, Paris Hilton is not going to be poor, no matter what she does. Someone raised in the middle class statistically speaking is almost certainly going to grow up to be middle class. And statistically someone who grows up poor is probably going to grow up to be poor, because you’re at a massive disadvantage. So we have to acknowledge the real differences, because the differences, those differences don’t make homeless or poor people bad. It acknowledges the enormous disadvantages that people are at. When we discount the enormous disadvantages that other people might be at, whatever those disadvantages might be — race, gender — when we discount those disadvantages, when we say everybody is the same, we empower blaming the victim.

T: You mentioned a couple specific characteristics of vocalization during emotional moments or arguments. And that was one of the things I thought was really curious.
RD: Poverty is inherently loud. I was in our shelter just last night and it’s freaking loud, because it’s a lot of people jampacked into a tiny room. If you want to be heard you have to be loud. The research suggests, if you’re born into poverty, you tend to talk louder. It’s not wrong; it’s just different. And it scares the hell out of middle-class people who were born in the suburbs where you don’t have to talk loud and they’re not used to volume. Now not every homeless person talks loud, not every person born into poverty talks loud, but many do. There’s nothing wrong with being loud; there’s nothing wrong with being quiet. The problem arises when you have a middle-class person who doesn’t understand that many people in poverty talk louder because poverty is loud and then they’re terrified when somebody is talking loud to them.

T: Your book seems to be predisposed toward empathy-driven tools, which you call “water tools.” Can you describe why you think that is important?
RD: Probably the biggest central idea in the book that I really try to push is this idea that there’s two parallel systems for trying to get people to follow the rules: punishment-driven enforcement and empathy-driven enforcement. Punishment-driven enforcement — or the “fire” tools — you get people to follow the rules by threatening punishment. Return the book on time or I’ll give you a fine. Don’t speed or I’ll give you a ticket. I tell my kids don’t break curfew or I’m going to ground you. It’s the threat of punishment that keeps you in line. Those are your fire tools. Empathy-driven tools are, if I’m nice to you, you’ll be nice to me. If I do you a favor, you’ll probably do me a favor. If I smile at you, you’re much less likely to cuss me out. If I ask you nicely to do something, you’re much more likely to do it than if I’m a big, fat jerk about it. And there’s a whole psychology behind that. I’m grossly oversimplifying it. And what I try to teach people is that yelling at people, threatening them, punishing, is not the only way to get people to follow the rules. Being nice to them, doing them favors, treating them with human dignity, is a whole parallel system for getting them to follow the rules, and it actually works better.

T: I saw your TEDx Talk at North Central College, and you summarized that by saying, “Be who you are.” Could you expound upon that a little bit?
RD: It was about — figure out what your deepest, most cherished values are and live those values. To figure out what your truest values are is the times you’ve failed them. Because, when you fail one of your deepest-held values, you feel like garbage. Think about the times you were really disappointed in yourself, and use those moments to realize what you hold most dear. For me, standing up for the vulnerable is one of my most inherent core values. And every time I’ve failed to do that, I’ve lost a little bit of me. It’s not just about being who you are, it’s about figuring out what are your most cherished values and live that to the fullest.


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