By Robbie Owens

DALLAS (CBSDFW.COM) – The scorching Texas summer appears determined to make an early appearance: and many of those searching for a place to keep cool have few options. The public libraries have long been an ally.

“It’s a peaceful place away from craziness,” says Michael Higginbotham with a laugh. Higginbotham is homeless. “I was going from place to place, staying with distant relatives and friends until I had nowhere to go.”

So the Central Library in downtown Dallas became a place to cool off, yes. The warm welcome, however, was a bonus.

“So we just started by saying ‘hello’,” says Heather Lowe. “It wasn’t revolutionary; but, it started to change things.”

Lowe oversees the library system’s adult services: everything from tax assistance, to healthcare navigation, computer classes, English classes, and now a robust homeless engagement program as well. Several years ago, a grant allowed them to add a staffer with a social work background to help connect homeless patrons to services, because success is often about access.

“Once that was about access to books, now it’s about computers, to online resoures, to service providers,” says Lowe. “We really see ourselves as helping people to navigate through the world, and that includes our homeless neighbors.”

Library Director Jo Giudice says the program is essentially about building relationships… and providing what homeless clients say they need.
“We did some really simple things like allowing people to have food and drink in the library–which everybody thinks that’s a big no, no, right? Where do you go these days where someone isn’t holding a cup of coffee or a bottle of water? We had to change with the times,” says Giudice. The end result, she says, has been to create a better library experience for everyone.

“We have art classes, we have creative writing, photography classes, we play games. It’s really about enriching their minds and their souls while we are working on solving those everyday problems.” There’s also an afternoon movie showing on Thursdays. And everyone is welcome.

Giudice admits that she had to overcome her own assumptions when shaping the program. After transferring from a branch library to expanded duties downtown, she says she saw the homeless loitering outside and decided that helping them obtain their GEDs would solve the problem. Her awakening came when a homeless patron with a doctorate offered to teach it for her.

“You might be sitting next to a homeschooler or someone who may be experiencing homelessness,” says Giudice, “but, how do you tell? So check your assumptions.”

And just be kind.

“And doesn’t the world need more kindness?” adds Lowe with a laugh.