• April 24, 2015

California’s Homeless Find a Quiet Place

On a recent visit to the Sacramento library, the high number of homeless patrons I saw there surprised me.

Seeing them in that quiet space, consumed by traditional media, I was struck by the difference between them and most of society with its 24/7 connection to streaming digital media. I began this project to take myself out of my own patterns and habits, to change my perspective, to observe, to listen, to understand, and to share this place of quiet.

Picture of a homeless patron at a California Library
Rebecca Rorrer reads If I Can’t Have You at the San Francisco Public Library. Rorrer devoured the 324-page murder mystery in five hours on a Friday afternoon. “I come here almost every day,” she said. “My favorites are true life stories, but I try to read a variety of viewpoints.”
Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.
Khalid Elshafiea reads No God but God: The Origins and Evolution of Islam at the San Jose Public Library Central Branch. Elshafiea says that he has been homeless since 2003, when he came to the United States from Sudan.

I met a woman, homeless, seated at a desk in the “quiet zone” on the fourth floor. She was looking thoughtfully out the library window and writing in her journal. She had a heavy volume on nursing with her. We talked. She told me how she wanted to get a job in nursing. After our conversation, I studied the library clientele more closely. I found homeless patrons there browsing periodicals, checking email on library computers, and sitting in quiet places reading books.

Being homeless often means living off the mainstream grid, unplugged from the Internet, email, and streaming media. Public libraries provide the homeless with a way to connect, and many homeless say that browsing the stacks and reading a book there eases a weary street-level perspective of life.

Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.
Cory Coburn reads W.E.B. Griffin’s novel The Corps: Call to Arms at the Sacramento Public Library. Coburn says he is a Marine veteran who served tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. He loves to read The Corps because it takes him back to his time as a soldier.
Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.
Langston Sylvester reads about Elijah Muhammad in The African American Almanac at the Sacramento Public Library. Sylvester visited the library each day during Black History Month to study the lives of notable African Americans.

Jeffrey Matulich was looking for books by the author Henry Miller when he discovered the work of Kurt Vonnegut. “Sometimes there’s a lot of drama out there in the streets, and it’s nice to have some peace and quiet,” he reflected.

And Edward Rideau went to Sacramento’s main library branch with a title in mind—Statutes and Amendments to the Codes of California. “We need to lobby to amend existing laws to improve our quality of life,” he says.

Picture of a homeless patron at a California library
Edward Rideau reads Statutes and Amendments to the Codes of California at the Sacramento Public Library Central Branch. With poor eyesight he must hold the book close enough to be able to read the fine text.
Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.
Arleta Taylor reads First Corinthians in her pocket copy of the New Testament Holy Bible at the Sacramento Public Library Central Branch.

In 2010 the federal government set forth an ambitious goal to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Numbers have declined, but according to a 2014 HUD report, more than 570,000 people are still without homes in America—and 20 percent of those are in California. Urban libraries fill the void, sheltering the homeless by day.

Cities have responded to homelessness with new codes of public conduct and trespassing ordinances enforced on persons deemed to be disorderly, unkempt, or of foul smell. The San Francisco Public Library has directly addressed the situation—it was the first in the country to add a full-time social worker to its staff. Leah Esguerra reaches out to homeless patrons in the main branch of the library. “Libraries are the last bastion of democracy,” she says.

Frank Bunnell reads, "The Everything Guide To Understanding Philosophy" at the San Francisco Public Library.
Frank Bunnell reads The Everything Guide to Understanding Philosophy at the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch.
Picture of a homeless patron at a California library.
Tanisha Meredith studies the ten rules of success in The Science of Success at the Sacramento Public Library.

These pictures of homeless library patrons were made at public libraries in Sacramento, San Jose, and San Francisco, California. My thanks to the patrons for sharing their stories and to the librarians for keeping these institutions open.

Fritz Hoffmann photographed the story “Wasteland,” which was published in the December 2014 issue of National Geographic magazine. You can see more of his work on his website.


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There are 48 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. Dino (Firenze) – Italy
    August 31, 2016

    “The reader may go from book to book, like a butterfly, and extract a phrase before dipping into another and another volume. “One book calls to another unexpectedly,” Manguel writes, “creating alliances across different cultures and centuries”
    (Alberto Manguel, 2008)

  2. Horacio Cárdenas
    November 5, 2015

    libraries are the last resource of many homeless people deny them access and you will deny them their human kind

  3. Gustavo Freitas
    June 24, 2015

    If not books, what else could open people’s mind and give them new perspectives about any situation? All the countries should have decent politics to give access to education.

    The link to Fritz Hoffmann’s website is broken. You need to remove the “target” part of url.

    • Alexa Keefe
      June 25, 2015

      Thank you @Gustavo Freitas! The link works but needs time to load.

  4. colleen tsoukalas
    June 1, 2015

    Libraries and Librarians forever! Always there for you!

  5. jspesquire
    May 27, 2015

    That is certainly…something. The bums in Sacramento do “use” the library but, more often than not, not for reading. A couple of observations. I’d rather listen to a showcase of female economists on comedy night than “read” the California statutes, and I get well remunerated for it. Hey, Braendel, what leads you to believe these folks are blessed with intelligence. Anent the Sudanese guy- you are welcome. Anent the Marine- Thank you. Anent the Secrets of Success lady- good start.

  6. Dennis Kern
    May 27, 2015

    Hi Fritz, Great job. hey I would be happy to treat Edward Rideau to an eye exam and a nice pair of reading glasses if you still know how to find him. I can be reached at the above email, just drop me a line and we’ll make it happen for him };o)

  7. sumandita
    May 26, 2015

    great work! i wish to be a part of this movement…

  8. Renee D.
    May 26, 2015

    What beautiful work in pictures and words! Even before becoming a teacher, I loved reading and the library! I’m grateful that the library serves as a refuge.

  9. D. Braendel
    May 26, 2015

    What is beautiful about this is that the people who are stigmatized for their homelessness, and stereotyped as wastrels, are shown here to be often intelligent and educated people who have fallen on hard times, but still the love of books and reading stays with them. One more reason to love libraries, and to remember that this could be us. Beautifully done.

  10. Arlene Hoffmann
    May 13, 2015

    Great job Fritz!
    We don’t appreciate how blessed we

  11. Barbara Smith
    May 12, 2015

    Wouldn’t it be wonderful if every Cental library had an on site social worker or two? Maybe then even more progress could be made toward healing the hurt of homelessness.

  12. Kevin
    May 11, 2015

    This should remind everyone to read and reflect more. take some time away from the continual online and read an offline book. Each one of these people have a unique life and I see no reason why they should have everything that non-homeless people have. I never made it a point to draw a line between “us” and “them.” I’ve always thought that “line” is a lot thinner than we think. Pull a few strings in the life of a “normal” person, and wham! your in the same boat.

  13. Richard Yescas
    May 7, 2015

    In response to your comments about Cory Coburn. A United States Marine is NOT a soldier. He’s a MARINE! GET IT RIGHT.

  14. Reginald Forrest
    May 6, 2015

    thank you for the article. In our new technological age, all people including my homeless tribes need more education to compete.

  15. Michael Abramov
    May 5, 2015

    A wonderful and considerate photo essay of homeless patrons using urban libraries. During a stint as a reference librarian at the Houston Library’s telephone reference, the head of the Fine Arts division did correct me on this point. Typically, the downtown library in an urban library system is referred to as the “Central Library.” All other general locations within the system are then called branches. I learned quickly never to refer to the Jesse H. Jones Central Library building as the “central branch.”

  16. Bill Musser
    May 5, 2015

    Public libraries are secular sanctuaries, truly representative of the greatest virtues of the American experiment. We see these faces and accept without judgment diverse ways of being; we read literature here representing that same diversity. Libraries tend to be more broadly welcoming than churches or synagogues, temples or mosques, those “sacred” sanctuaries that generally expect some conformity to a particular faith tradition or set of beliefs to justify one’s presence there. Libraries are sanctuaries that require no subscription to a particular belief system other than the public good and the exercise of freedom– to rest, to read, to explore, to edify and entertain, to find a center at the whirlwind of society. These photos honor both those who find refuge in the library and those who provide the space to do so. Thank you, Fritz Hoffmann, for this moving set of images. Thank goodness for libraries and the people who run them. (Written by an organizational research librarian who often wishes he had gone into public librarianship.)

  17. David Wright
    May 5, 2015

    Echoing other comments here. As a librarian in a large urban public library, few things gob smack me quite so much as when somebody makes a casual, dismissive remark about how distasteful they find homeless persons in the library. Few things make me feel so blessed in my work as getting to be a part of creating a place where everyone belongs, and is treated with respect.

  18. Del
    May 4, 2015

    “In 2010 the federal government set forth an ambitious goal to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Numbers have declined, but according to a 2014 HUD report, more than 570,000 people are still without homes in America—and 20 percent of those are in California. Urban libraries fill the void, sheltering the homeless by day.” Wrong! In 2002 Pres Bush and congress created and funded a “10-year Plan to End Homelessness.” It failed miserably because no accountability for results was written into the guidelines—private advocates and faith groups “knew how to end homelessness” not governments so did not need to be accountable.

  19. Sue
    May 1, 2015

    These images brought tears to my eyes. It’s so easy to overlook and ignore the homeless, the poor, the non-mainstream people in the periphery of our lives. This story and these images are a wonderful reminder to open our eyes and our hearts to the people we see and meet that don’t have as much “property”/stuff as we do. Thanks for the hint.

  20. mauget
    May 1, 2015

    merci à ces bibliothèques de leur réserver un lieu de culture qui leur permet de ne pas se déshumaniser. C’est aussi par la culture que l’on peut s’en sortir

  21. Cynthia
    May 1, 2015

    Fantastic work..now this is what needs to be told and what better way than through photography…thank you for sharing this.

  22. Katherine Nelson
    April 30, 2015

    Thank you for this series. To work on a legal project I once moved to a community where I knew no one except 3 male doctors working on the same project. I had a home; it was within walking distance of the library. It became my home away from home, and I could identify with the many homeless who came there to read, in companionship with others, where talking and intimate sharing was not required to feel human, a sense of “belonging”. Despite their unlearned or rejected social values, my experience since, in the many libraries I’ve belonged to, volunteered in or worked for, is that readers are respectful and appreciative. Reading may provide respite, relief and possible recovery or even renewal, social and financial status aside. More power to readers and our libraries.

  23. Lisa Lindsay
    April 29, 2015

    reminds me of my essay for Zocalo Public Square regarding the library I work at in Fresno, CA. Great piece! http://www.zocalopublicsquare.org/2015/04/08/who-are-the-homeless-people-in-my-library/ideas/nexus/

  24. Deborah W. Yoho
    April 29, 2015

    I am a doctoral student in library and information science at the Univ. of S. Carolina and my dissertation topic is Literacy among Adults who are Homeless: The Role of Pubic Libraries. I would appreciate email contact with anyone who might be helpful in my research. Very little scholarly literature exists to bring this snapshot of individuals who are homeless, but love to read, to policymakers and program providers. That is my quest. Wonderful work! dwyoho@gmail.com

  25. Sharon L Jarvis
    April 29, 2015

    Touching. Inspiring. Very real. Thank you for sharing this photo-documentary.

    Libraries rock!!

  26. Deborah Estreicher
    April 28, 2015

    Beautiful, Fritz!!!!

  27. Sarah Vantrease
    April 28, 2015

    People experiencing homelessness live everywhere in the US, not just in cities, so rural libraries also serve this demographic. Fortunately there are libraries in most American communities! There are actually more public libraries in the US than there are McDonald’s restaurants, with 16,536 public library buildings open throughout the US. In addition for being a place for any member of the public to gain access to ideas & technology, public libraries are normalizing spaces: everyone can use a public library so there’s no stigma or judgment in being found there.

  28. Kristine Williams
    April 28, 2015

    Beautiful work–thank you!

  29. Tamara Martinez
    April 27, 2015

    As a public librarian on the North Shore of Oahu in Hawaii, I was recently asked about my experiences with homeless in our rural public and school library. The information is being used for a presentation on rights of the homeless to access library resources and services by library graduate students at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. We are a small library where it seems like everyone knows everyone and yes, we have homeless who regularly use our library. I am happy to see that this issue is getting more attention as homelessness is an issue affecting many communities. I am honored to be a part of an institution that welcomes all.

  30. Linda Flint
    April 27, 2015

    Beautiful photos. Nice touch to add the titles of what the people were reading. In fact, I read the murder mystery book that one of the people had read. Life is full of so many disparities. Public libraries really help people.

  31. Veeralcsh shah
    April 27, 2015

    This shows that books stay with u in any situation unlike people. By Acquiring knowledge they may get home. If they believe in knowledge and once hunger built inside them of getting endless knowledge so by this they may find hidden skills. Awesome article.

  32. C J Burkett
    April 26, 2015

    My brother was homeless. He always had paperbacks and a notepad to write his thoughts and ideas on. He was a brilliant person and a good person. Books and libraries were his sustenance.

  33. Edith Hansen Mysen
    April 26, 2015

    Thank you for your insightful article. Thank you to each person for sharing something of themselves. Each life has great value!

  34. Stephanie CogSciLibrarian Brown
    April 26, 2015

    I love this story and photographs. Really illustrates the value of public libraries to all- not only books and services, but also a safe place to think, to rest, and to enjoy the resources on offer. Thank you. *bows*

  35. mazyar
    April 26, 2015

    very inspiring and meaningful, well done

  36. marina
    April 25, 2015

    impressive and touching

  37. Cindy
    April 25, 2015

    Incredible work by Mr. Hoffman. Libraries and bookstores have always been special to me. After seeing Mr. Hoffman’s photographs, I will see libraries in a different light.
    Thank you for an enlightening story.

  38. SSDF
    April 25, 2015

    Beautiful, important, work. Thank you!

  39. Abraham
    April 25, 2015

    Homeless ppl has valu in America , been homeless also ain’t easy but still you can fight that’s why I love this country more than anything .

  40. Christy Cunningham
    April 24, 2015

    Public libraries have offered me so much. As a young mother, I found amazing story hours for children, free movies to rent and great friends. As a graduate with a masters degree, I used the library for on line access because I couldn’t afford internet. It’s not just for homeless, but being in a slower, lower paid life, I found comfort in access to my public libraries. Public access to information in a comforting and welcoming environment.

  41. Mali Jonze
    April 24, 2015

    I read a few of the comments and it seems like some of you assume that the only reason homeless people would enter a library, is because they’re homeless. It didn’t seem to occur to you that they’re in the library to read.
    As a Californian, and twice weekly visitor to my local library, I can tell you we have one of the best library systems in this country and some of the most beautiful libraries I’ve ever seen.
    As for our homeless population, we are doing our best. We tend to care for families with children first. With the recent influx of undocumented children from South America, and the regular influx of undocumented families we get, we are trying to take care of everyone.

  42. Natalie
    April 24, 2015

    During the thankfully short time that I was homeless, my local library was the only place I could go to use the computers for email. Being without a cell phone during the time that my city was ripping out all the payphones made it impossible to keep in touch with people. The library gave me the ability to get the bus schedule, find a job and keep in contact with my family and friends and also gave me a place to use the bathroom, read and take a break from the constant walking around and looking for a place to sleep. I am grateful that my library is there for the public like it’s supposed to be.

  43. Kevin
    April 24, 2015

    I truly admire work like this, Fritz. I really do. Are you willing to share how you approach these beautiful people when you ask to take their photo? How do you ask? What’s your demeanour as you begin talking to them?

  44. Angelina Gonzalez
    April 24, 2015

    Fantastic shots and message!

  45. william barragan
    April 24, 2015

    If I had the money I would go outside of a library an feed this people. Its sad how are society has nothing for this lost souls to give them dignity

  46. tiberman Sajiwan Ramyead
    April 24, 2015

    From the bottom of my heart – congratulations to Fritz Hoffmann for the VERY EXPRESSIVE shots, and the wonderful message if the topic.

  47. June J. Playfair
    April 24, 2015

    Its good that there is somewhere for these unfortunates to shelter contemplate and perhaps find a way out of their situations in the so called land of plenty.

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