What we know, what we do: libraries supporting identity building for homeless youth

Public libraries have an ethical and professional obligation to advocate for the
information rights of the homeless through the elimination of barriers, promoting equal
access to information for the poor, educate the community about the unique situations of
homeless library users, and creating a welcoming and safe library atmosphere (ALA, Policy
61). Despite being an especially vulnerable portion of the poor, homeless youth are a
difficult demographic to reach. Currently, in Canada there are approximately 65 000
homeless between the ages of 12 and 29 (Solomon, 2013). The main barrier preventing this
vulnerable population from accessing library services is a lack of self-esteem and
confidence that prevents them from actively seeking support. Often, youth cope with their
difficult situations by withdrawing into deviant informal networks of information,
distrusting information professionals, and by denying their problems. In order to succeed
in rehabilitating their lives, youth need to build an identity, self-esteem and self-worth—a
process that is hindered and interrupted by a transient lifestyle.

Libraries and researchers tend to focus on the physical needs of the homeless, rather than fulfilling their higher-level needs such as identity formation. It is important to recognize that the higher-level needs of
youth are critical when developing and offering information services. In order to support
homeless youth non-judgmental professionals must work to build trusting relationships
with these patrons, promote the library as a source of escapism and safe refuge, and design
information activities for teens to seek, share, and create information in ways that are
beneficial and rewarding. Information retrieval activities are a solution for building
identities and self-worth in homeless youth, an essential part of motivating youth to seek support and pursue goals towards rehabilitation.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs states that people cannot focus on higher-level needs until their basic physiological needs are met (1943). However, while libraries offer a wealth of resources that could benefit the physical wellbeing of homeless youth, first reaching this population is the most difficult part of providing support. Teens are reluctant to seek out information because they are in denial of their problems, focused on fulfilling basic needs, afraid of not being taken seriously, or worried about confidentiality. They have a tendency to withdraw from their social networks and to not actively seek support for their problems (Miriam et al., 2010). These potential users lack the motivation and self-efficacy to cope with their overwhelming situations. Higher-level needs such as those described by Maslow (belonging, self-esteem and self-actualization) co-exist along with basic physical needs (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2012). Higher-level needs are still of concern for people that are worried about staying warm and finding food (Snow & Anderson, 1987).

Furthermore, physiological and psychological needs are equally important and co-dependent. When emotional needs are not fulfilled, homeless youth reported using unproductive coping strategies including fighting, drugs, and smoking (Miriam et al., 2010).

Homeless youth need help and support in fulfilling higher-level needs as it is an essential factor in enabling them to pursue other information needs and support. Homeless youth are robbed of many identity-building experiences during a crucial time of intellectual development. Being transient and highly mobile, they are less likely to complete high school, integrate into school communities, participate in enrichmentactivities, explore personal interests, cultivate talents, and benefit from stable social relationships (Solomon, 2013). They have difficulty securing regular support services such as counseling. They often have difficulty maintaining relationships with loved ones while they are homeless. This identity crisis is compounded by negative societal attitudes towards homelessness. In their study of the identity formation in the homeless, Snow and Anderson researched how the homeless cope with the stigma of homelessness and generate an identity beyond the stereotypical assumptions held by society (1987). They found identity-related concerns were present, even when physical needs were not being met. Through talk and storytelling, the homeless men carved out meaning and personal significance despite being marginalized by society. Snow and Anderson conclude that a sense of meaning and self-worth are critical for survival (1987). For adolescence, self-efficacy and confidence is needed to take on the enormous and overwhelming tasks such as finding permanent housing, starting job training, persisting with academic programs, building positive relationships, seeking counseling, beating addiction, or accessing information services. Libraries can utilize the unique information behaviours of the digital-age generation to help homeless youth fulfill their higher-level needs.

Homeless woman with two dogs.

Libraries have an obligation to serve homeless youth. This paper suggests some strategies for building self-esteem and identity to help teens find the strength to access the community resources that can help.

Information sources have long been tied to identity formation and social interaction (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2005). Television, newspapers, and books provide escapism and keep people up to date on current events, giving them a sense of connection to their former lives and a basis for conversations (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2005). At the same, homeless people express a distrust of mainstream media as they rarely see reflections of their own opinions, perceptions, and experiences. Traditional mainstream media has not met the information needs of the homeless in affirming identity or building self-confidence.

However, Radical Change theory (Dresang & Koh, 2009) marks a fundamental shift in the way that young people retrieve information. The children of the digital age regularly engage with information communication technology and information retrieval for them is an identity-building activity. Information retrieval is no longer passive, but rather an interactive activity (Dresang & Koh, 2009). Hypertext empowers end-users and grants control over learning giving choices and creating personalized paths for information retrieval (Dresang & Koh, 2009). The feeling of being in control and having choice in the information-retrieval process is important for homeless youth. When getting support from professionals, youth are discouraged from seeking help within rigid structures with too many rules (Miriam et al., 2013). They also expressed a desire to be listened to, discuss issues, and be allowed to shape their own opinions (Miriam et al., 2013). Digital-age information behaviours support desire by inviting comments and feedback from users. Being invited to express opinions and to contribute to their learning process promotes Maslow’s higher-level needs of respect, problem solving, and acceptance of facts (1943). Libraries should emphasize this type of information gathering when teaching research skills, and use it as a design principle when creating resources for youth.

The library is a safe haven from overcrowded shelters, negative peer pressures, and the dangers of the street. It also provides access to materials that are entertaining, offering relaxation and escapism. This is especially important for those who are anti social, suffering from anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia, or overcoming addiction (Gehner & Freeman, 2005). For the homeless, reading and learning is a constructive way to spend free time. It is an activity that builds self-worth and self-esteem.

In order to draw homeless youth, libraries must reach out to homeless youth by visiting social service providers and shelters to emphasize it as a welcoming place for entertainment and sanctuary. Libraries must remember that homeless youth may not have experience with, or positive views of libraries. Negative attitudes from information professionals towards the homeless emerge repeatedly in the literature as the major deterrent for youth for accessing library services (Miriam et al, 2005). All staff and volunteers in libraries should undergo sensitivity training and education about the unique circumstances of homeless individuals (Gehner & Freeman, 2005). It is of the upmost importance that youth feel welcome and important in the library at all times.

Homeless youth may feel they are limited to a stigmatized, “homeless identity”, especially if they are visibly homeless (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2012). For the digital age generation, information retrieval offers a way to explore and experiment with portraying flexible and multiple identities (Dresang & Koh, 2009). They can seek information without fear of judgment, escape into online gaming, express themselves without censorship, and interact with new online communities. Just as words and stories were an important part of character formation for homeless men studied by Snow and Anderson (1987), self- expression through blogs, wikis and social media plays an important role for youth. Youth engage in social discourse and construct “identities-in-action” through the use of avatars,

IM nicknames, managing personal blogs, and the creation of photos and videos (Dresange & Koh, 2009). For homeless youth, these could be acts of therapeutic catharsis and validating self-documentation that support identity-building and build confidence.

Identity formation is also supported by the social elements of information activities. Users use information technology to encounter different perspectives, collaborate with others to solve problems, circulate and share information, and maintain existing friendships (Dresang & Koh, 2009). Because homelessness can be socially isolating, connecting youth to these opportunities for social engagement will be highly beneficial.

The homeless often have difficulty maintaining contact with old friends and previous work colleagues (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2012). They were most likely to seek information from family members, friends or agency workers. However, many homeless experience a disruption or complete loss of these informal supports when they are transient. Homeless youth need affirmation and emotional support (Miriam et al., 2013). Therefore, information services that create, supplement and strengthen positive social ties are important. Potentially, information activities can strengthen the cohesion and effectiveness within the homeless youth community. Currently, the perspectives and information retrieval preferences of homeless youth are understudied and not well understood (Solomon, 2013). The inner life of the homeless is often neglected by researchers (Snow & Anderson, 1987). By helping youth engage with web 2.0 platforms, they can create, share, and collaborate with each other. Living life on the streets and surviving each day is an “episode of peak performance”; recognizing the special knowledge and accomplishment these youth possess can restore confidence and self-worth (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2012). Additionally, when seeking information, youth preferred communicating with individuals that had personally experienced homelessness (Miriam et al., 2010). Homeless youth can feel appreciated by sharing their valuable expertise with other homeless youth and service providers while creating valuable resources. Libraries should offer training and programming that encourages the creation of digital media by and about their experiences. Furthermore, these disadvantaged groups rely heavily on informal networks in term of social capital for material and emotional support (Muggleton & Ruthven, 2012). Social networking allows marginalized youth to expand their peer support network and gather relevant information and share in experiences.

Homeless youth have been disconnected from their previous lifestyle and identity. They have lost trust in people that were important to them, and in society as a whole. Connectedness, belonging, participation, and integration into communities is vital to their success in society. Libraries have a responsibility to provide information services to support this population and support their higher-level as well as basic needs. Identity is best understood as, “we are what we know and what we do” (Dresang & Koh, 2009). The personal expression and social interaction offered by web 2.0 information activities fulfill many of Maslow’s higher-level needs such as creativity, problem-solving, tolerance, self-esteem, confidence, achievement, respect of others, and respect by others (Maslow, 1943).

Programming and information services can engage youth in practical identity-building activities and focus on teaching the skills needed for engaging with information in thdigital age: critical thinking, information literacy, multiple literacies, collaboration and tolerance (Dresang & Koh, 2009).

Information services have traditionally focuses on fulfilling basic information needs of the homeless while giving little consideration to their inner well-being. By shifting attention to the higher-level needs through compassionate, non-judgmental service, and making self-expression and social interaction through digital media a priority, libraries can empower homeless youth to overcome their adversities by gaining self-identity and confidence.

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What we know, what we do: information retrieval and identity building

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