The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone

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  • Table of Contents
  • About the author
  • Reviews

Read an interview with the author and watch a video of a reading from the book!

Homelessness is a perennial topic of concern at libraries. In fact, staff at public libraries interact with almost as many homeless individuals as staff at shelters do. Empathy and understanding, along with specific actionable advice that’s drawn from experience, makes all the difference in working with this group. In this book Dowd, executive director of a homeless shelter, spotlights best practices drawn from his own shelter’s policies and training materials. Filled with to-the-point guidance that will help frontline public library staff and managers understand and serve this population better, this resource

  • includes facts about homelessness every librarian should know;
  • debunks widespread myths about these individuals, explaining how they see themselves, what issues they struggle with, and how libraries can shift towards supporting them;
  • shares de-escalation techniques like showing respect, ways to avoid making things personal, and using proper body language;
  • walks readers through dealing with common issues like a sleeping patron, questionable hygiene, offensive behavior, and asking a patron to leave; and
  • advises on how to provide backup to a colleague and when to call the police.

Filled with real life stories that illustrate the effectiveness of Dowd’s approach, this one-of-a-kind guide will empower library staff to treat homeless individuals with dignity.

Introduction: Who Am I? Who Are You?

Part I    Homelessness and Empathy

  • Chapter 1    Top Ten Homeless Myths
  • Chapter 2    Homeless People Are (Not) Just like You
  • Chapter 3    Empathy: The Psychological, Neurological, and Social Bases for It

Part II        Empathy-Driven Enforcement

  • Chapter 4    Empathy vs. Punishment
  • Chapter 5    Step 1: Your Head Tools
  • Chapter 6    Step 2: Your Body Tools  
  • Chapter 7    Step 3: Your Word Tools  
  • Chapter 8    Advanced Tools

Part III    Special Situations

  • Chapter 9    Everyday Predicaments
  • Chapter 10    Mental Illness
  • Chapter 11    Substance Abuse
  • Chapter 12    Hygiene
  • Chapter 13    Sleeping
  • Chapter 14    Possessions
  • Chapter 15    Children

Part IV    Beyond Problem-Solving

  • Chapter 16    Advice for Managers and Leaders
  • Chapter 17    How Best to Help Homeless Patrons

The End of Homelessness
Appendix    Key Phrases

Ryan J. Dowd

Ryan J. Dowd has spent most of his career as Executive Director of a large homeless shelter near Chicago. In addition, he trains organizations around the globe (including libraries, homeless shelters, and hospitals) on how to use empathy-driven enforcement with homeless individuals. For more information, visit

"Packs a wealth of useful information ... The approaches detailed here will be applicable to all sorts of patron-staff interactions in libraries of all sizes. A comprehensive handbook that’s sure to grow even more relevant as time goes on.”
— Booklist

"He emphasizes ways in which librarians can convey respect and a nonjudgmental attitude towards homeless persons (including five pages devoted to handshakes) and makes important points about the necessity for 'legitimate' library rules that are predictable and fair.”

"The levity and clarity of Dowd’s writing provides a functional wisdom.”
Real Change

"This thoughtful and practical guide will help librarians better understand the homeless population ... Readers will find Dowd's advice easy to understand and apply.”

"Taken as a customer service kit on how to deal with every problem patron, the book is invaluable. Empathy-driven enforcement is beneficial to our interactions with teens, stressed moms, and entitled customers in addition to those experiencing homelessness.”
— The International Journal of Information, Diversity, & Inclusion

"After experiencing a critical incident with a transient individual at our library, I knew my staff and I needed more training on how to react mindfully, so that we were respecting the individual while keeping ourselves and our other patrons safe. I signed up for Ryan Dowd's webinar on working with individuals experiencing homelessness in libraries and read his book on the same topic. His empathy-driven approached resonated with my existing value system and gave me practical tools I could start using immediately. The poignant vignettes peppered throughout the text gave me confidence that these tried-and-true methods were provided by someone working in the trenches on a daily basis, not sprouting lofty ideas from a comfortable office that would fall apart under the pressure of real-world library work. I haven't looked back.”
— Jenn Carson, Library Director, L.P. Fisher Public Library, Woodstock, New Brunswick, Canada