LONDON 14 May 2009 – On Wednesday evening, 13 May 2009, leading homelessness organisations joined members of the library sector at the British Library to celebrate the official launch of Outside Story, a pilot project to improve access to reading, learning and information services for homeless and vulnerably housed people in public libraries. Research by the New Policy Institute for Crisis estimates that there are as many as 150,000 single homeless people in London, of which under a tenth are recorded in official statistics.
Outside Story is the first project of its kind for homeless people in England and aims to ensure that library services are available for homeless people in a way that is appropriate and meets their needs. The project was shaped by initial research into what homeless people need from their libraries, in a report entitled “Get a Cat and Read Keats,” so entitled because those are the two main things homeless people said they wanted, when polled.
Sue McKenzie, President of London Libraries and head of Brent Libraries said: “The key to this project is that it is user-led. We’re not telling people what we think they need, they are telling us. This is the true spirit of the public library service: free books, learning and information and a safe neutral space for everyone who needs it.”
To further highlight the importance of this project, poet Dwayne Foster spoke about the vital role of libraries for homeless people, and gave a rousing poetry performance. Life circumstances left Dwayne homeless in 2002 and he lived on the streets for two years. “This project is helping get rid of the snobbery that many associate with libraries. Homelessness can happen to anyone. Libraries helped me turn my life around, and everyone should feel comfortable walking in and asking for help,” said Dwayne.
Jenny Edwards, Chief Executive of Homeless Link, said: “The focus of the Outside Story is on developing connections and understanding between London's public libraries, the community and homelessness projects. This will have a very positive impact on our members’ services in the capital and on their ability to enable people to move on to independent lives through improved work choices.”
Work on the project began on 22 September 2008 with funding from the JJ Sainsbury’s Trust, support from Homeless Link, London Libraries and seven participating London boroughs, Brent, Bromley, Camden, Greenwich, Hackney, Lambeth and Lewisham. The project will develop and test models of practice that can be used by other library service providers.
“Libraries are a free place where homeless and vulnerably-housed people can go,” said Outside Story project director Fiona Heffernan. “There aren’t many places like that left where you can sit and read, or just sit.”