“Willkommen, bienvenue, welcome!” sang Brenda Bentt-Peters, quoting the 1966 musical Cabaret. All these words have the same meaning, said Bentt-Peters, community outreach supervisor at Brooklyn (N.Y.) Public Library (BPL). But for many, especially the influx of new people coming to the US, hearing a familiar greeting can leave a lasting impression.
“This is the first step.… We want the library to be a place where they know they can come in and feel welcome,” she said during “Creating Welcoming and Supportive Libraries for Asylum Seekers and People Experiencing Homelessness and Poverty,” a January 20 session at the American Library Association’s 2024 LibLearnX Conference in Baltimore.
Bentt-Peters and other library colleagues shared strategies for serving various groups of library users that insect with poverty, particularly unhoused people, asylum-seekers, and those who face period poverty—the lack of access to or ability to purchase menstrual products.
According to 2022 Census data, 12.4% of Americans lived in poverty, up from 7.8% in 2021. A 2019 study in Obstetrics and Gynecology reported that 64% of respondents—nearly 200 low-income women—struggled to afford menstrual products that year. From spring 2022 to January 1, 2024, New York City had more than 69,000 people seeking asylum in its care, and more than 186,000 came through the city during that time, according to data from the city’s mayor’s office.
When working with asylum-seekers, Bentt-Peters noted three common types of needs: physical, such as food and clothing; security, such as permanent housing or legal help; and belonging. Offering a place of belonging can be as simple as identifying staffers who speak patrons’ native languages or creating a New Americans corner of the library. Many other needs can be met by forging community partnerships, said Bentt-Peters, but that doesn’t have to be limited to big organizations.
“It can be anyone in your community,” she said. “The barber at the corner who can help put together a donation drive, or even your local corner stores can probably help out by putting up fliers,” said Bentt-Peters. “Don’t downplay your community partners.”
At BPL, Senior Young Adult Librarian Rakisha Kearns-White promotes menstrual literacy and period equity, noting that libraries should be doing so as “landmark locations” of information access. She discussed making “period-friendly” libraries by discouraging anti-period jokes or language and offering inclusive workshops for youth and their parents. BPL recently created a Period Pantry, where people can pick up free kits with donations.
Programs like a period pantry, Kearns-White said, not only help the community, but they also bring positive attention to the library at little cost. “We give everyone free soap and toilet paper in the bathroom, why not maxi pads?” she said.
Respectful and accurate language is also a vital element in providing support services, particularly those who are unhoused, said Julie A. Winkelstein, a California-based librarian, activist, and author of Libraries and Homelessness: An Action Guide (Libraries Unlimited, 2021).
The medicalization and criminalization of homelessness over the last several decades has led to damaging stigmas, she said, which are reflected in media and other everyday language. It can also make patrons who are unhoused more reluctant to share their housing status with library staff, creating barriers in serving them.
She noted subtle changes people can make to their vocabulary, like using “mental health” instead of “mental illness,” or “impacted” instead of “vulnerable.” More notably, Winkelstein recommended libraries involve people with lived experiences in their efforts.
“Not only can their voices inform your work,” she said, “it’s also important for them to be able to tell their own stories.”