The surest way to mingle with Charlotte’s homeless is to stand outside uptown’s Main library just before the doors open at 10 a.m.
Odds are, many of the people in line ahead of you are homeless, and their numbers only grow as the day gets hotter.
It’s a fact that has caused some conflict in the past, including complaints of homeless people stripping naked to bathe in the restroom sinks.
However, that’s not stopping the library from launching a literacy initiative aimed at helping the city’s homeless become savvy at using computers to find and apply for jobs.
The program, made possible with a $25,000 federal grant, begins in coming weeks in partnership with the Urban Ministry Center, where classes will be held. The library is supplying an additional $7,000, officials said. An early goal is to see at least 10 percent of the homeless participants find jobs in the first six months.
The success stories are expected to increase as the class expands with the help of volunteer teachers. The library intends to train those volunteers to make sure the classes continue after grant money runs out in a year.
John Zika, senior library manager at the Main branch, said the program underscores a belief that the homeless are library patrons just like other city residents and deserve services catered to their needs.
In fact, he did a sample survey of homeless residents and found 90 percent visited the library at least weekly, half had library cards and one-third used the library as a quiet place to read. More than 10 percent of the sample group were members of a book club, he added.
Library officials say the classes are in line with its core mission of providing the public with access to information.
“The library has a lot of potential to help someone who has fallen on hard times,” Zika said.
A mom who needs work
Among the homeless ready to sign up is 41-year-old Ana, who did not want to give her full name. She’s a single mother currently living at the Salvation Army Center of Hope shelter for women and children.
Her online search for a job has led to one disappointment after another, she said, thanks in part to job websites that bombard applicants with advertisements for colleges, technical schools and get-jobs-easy schemes. As a result, it can take up to two hours to fill out applications, wasting the limited time homeless people can spend on public computers, she said.
“There’s a lot of competition,” Ana said. “Plus, employers see you have the shelter as your home address and they think of you as a drug addict, an alcoholic or someone with no goals. We have a lot of women here who have skills and just need a chance.”
Library officials say the new program is part of an ongoing effort to help people in the community find jobs. It started in 2010, when a Job Help Center opened in the Main library. It helps 900 people a month, officials said.
Organizers say the new classes will teach the homeless the basics of modern job hunting, including how to use online resources to find jobs, how to fill out online applications and how to prepare for interviews. Literacy and writing skills will also be taught.
The classes are being offered at the Urban Ministry Center to reach those who are reluctant to ask for help or might have been barred from the library for misconduct.
New approach to the homeless
Observer stories from years past show the library’s relationship with the homeless has been strained, particularly the late 1980s when they used the library to wash clothes and take baths. Security was tightened as a result and rules were adopted against such practices as sleeping in chairs, bathing, bringing in bedrolls and taking up excessive space. Currently, Mecklenburg County handles security and rules enforcement.
Since then, the staff has undergone training on dealing with the homeless, and a book club was started 2009 for the homeless, though not limited to them.
Library officials say they have no way of knowing how many homeless visit the Main branch each day, or any other branches. But the location of the Main branch on North Tryon Street puts it within blocks of both the Men’s Shelter of Charlotte and the Salvation Army Center of Hope. Both shelters require the homeless to be out during the day, except in times of extreme weather.
Barbara Thomas of the Urban Ministry Center said the new library program is breaking ground by bringing computer and skills classes directly to the homeless, rather than requiring them to travel elsewhere. That’s a big deal, she said, because the homeless are typically on foot and reluctant to ask for help.
“The homeless population has the most difficult time negotiating the system in our city,” Thomas said.
“These days, you can’t really go from place to place, filling out applications and meeting people. A lot of that takes place online. It’s critical for them to have access to a computer and to be computer literate to find work. That’s why this library program is so important.”