The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness : An Empathy-driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone

Book Cover
Ryan Dowd
May 9, 2022

This is a parenting book.

Yes, the details and particulars are about libraries serving homeless patrons, and for that it is great. I think all librarians and library employees should read it. Even if they have have no homeless patrons. Because the guidance in this book should be applied to all librarian-patron interactions.

And this book's guidance should be applied to all parent-child interactions. So it is a parenting book. And a teacher classroom-management book. It is a management and leadership book. It is a customer service book. I would daresay it is a policing book.

The core substance of this book is how to most effectively enforce rules. In libraries with homeless patrons, yes, but really in all situations. So this book is for anyone who enforces rules.

And what is the most effective way to enforce rules? With empathy (as opposed to punishment). Ryan Dowd, the author, has spent his career working from volunteer to director of Chicago's second-largest homeless shelter, and he has found the most important tool for running a homeless shelter is empathy.

Dowd has also learned that the homeless value libraries highly, so one of his recent ventures has been sharing his experience and knowledge with librarians. Thus this book. I think he could have just as easily distilled his wisdom in a presentation for parents or teachers or supervisors or anyone else responsible for enforcing rules--which is almost everyone. And it is easy to extrapolate and transfer what he shares to almost any situation. So librarians might have the most to explicitly gain from this book, but it is for everyone.

He even offers this in a sidebar at one point:

Question: Does empathy-driven enforcement work with patrons who are not homeless?

Answer: Yes, absolutely! The principles of empathy-driven enforcement work better than punishment-driven enforcement with just about everyone. They are just especially important for homeless patrons because punishment is counterproductive with them. The best way to make sure that you use water tools with homeless patrons is to use them with every patron.

Dowd is a casual, entertaining writer with a strong personality and voice. He draws from psychology, sociology, and other sciences to start the book with a general exploration of homelessness, class culture, relationships, and why empathy is such an effective tool. He then shifts to how those dynamics play out in libraries. The bulk of the book is his explanation of a multitude of "tools" demonstrating how to use empathy-driven enforcement in different situations.

Here's an example from the early part of the book:

The 5:1 ratio--Dr. John Gottman has studied the ultimate relationship, marriages. His principles apply to less intimate relationships too, though. Gottman discovered that in order for a relationship to remain healthy, the ratio of good to bad interactions must stay above 5:1. In other words, for every one bad interaction you have with someone, you need to have at least five good interactions. If you are going to offer a criticism, you better have offered at least five compliments already. The higher the ratio, the better, but 5:1 is the minimum. Anything below that and the relationship implodes on itself (which usually leads to divorce in a marriage). Applying this to a library, if you want to maintain a healthy relationship with your patrons, you should maintain a ratio of at least five good interactions for every one negative one. Since you never know when you will have to have a negative interaction (like enforcing a rule), you want to "store up" positive interactions preemptively.

Then, later, that information informs one of his key tools:

Tool: The Cup of Pennies

I need you to remember two concepts from chapter 3 about empathy:

Psychology of relationships--In order to maintain a healthy relationship, you must have at least five positive interactions for every one negative interaction. Relationships are built with compliments, questions, deeds, and touch.

Reciprocity--We feel obligated to repay kindness 1:1. Our vengeful selves want to repay rudeness, though, with more rudeness than we received (e.g., 1:5).

Combining these two concepts, you need to build up lots of "positive" credits in order to avoid having someone try to punish you for a negative interaction. The minimum ratio you should be looking for is 5:1.

It is helpful to imagine that you have an empty cup in your hand. Every time you do something positive for a homeless patron, you add one penny to the cup. Every time you do something negative, you remove five pennies. Anytime you have zero (or fewer) pennies in the cup, you are more likely to have problems with that patron. You want to build up a healthy reserve of pennies that you can use later to solve or prevent problems.

He explains more from there. Since I'm sharing tools, to give a sense of Dowd's style and substance, here are snippets of a few more:

Tool: The Marijuana Plant

You want to be calm when talking to homeless patrons. I don't mean "not frantic." That isn't calm enough. Imagine you just got an hour-long massage. That's not calm enough. Imagine you just took a lavender bubble bath with jasmine candles. That's not calm enough. Imagine you just smoked a marijuana plant. Even that is not calm enough. I want you to imagine that you are the marijuana plant. Now, that is calm.

You want to be calm because your discomfort is contagious (through mirror neurons) to the people you talk to. If you are uncomfortable, your patrons will be uncomfortable (and uncomfortable people do dumb things). If you are mellow, though, your patrons will be more mellow. You are the leader. Lead them to mellowness.


Tool: The Limbo

The trick is to accept that an angry homeless patron will always be louder than you, so you have to speak more quietly than you want him or her to speak. . . .

I find it helpful to speak absurdly quietly when someone is shouting at me. If someone is shouting at me and I respond with a whisper, it can be very confusing to someone who expects me to shout back. More often than not, they whisper back without me having to ask them to talk more quietly.


Tool: The Oprah

Since I live in Chicago, I have several friends who have worked for Oprah Winfrey. They all talk about how Oprah is an amazing listener. . . .

In fact, the mere act of listening can convert an enemy into a friend. So few people take the time to listen to homeless people that a simple courtesy like listening can turn a homeless patron into your biggest fan. It is a lot easier to solve problems when someone is your fan!

And since I seem to have slipped into overshare mode, let me give you the heart of the book as well:

Let's look at the differences between empathy-driven enforcement and punishment-driven enforcement:

Culture -
Empathy: Rooted in a culture of assistance and cooperation.
Punishment: Rooted in a culture of domination and legalism.

How It Works -
Empathy: Gains compliance with the rules by minimizing the power imbalance between the rule-enforcer and enforcee.
Punishment: Gains compliance with the rules by maximizing the power imbalance between the rule-enforcer and enforcee.

Mentality -
Empathy: Creates a "partner" mentality in the patron.
Punishement: Creates a "victim" mentality in the patron.

Who Decides -
Empathy: Library staff decide the terms of engagement.
Punishment: Patron decides the terms of engagement.

Benefit -
Empathy: Effective.
Punishment: Simple.

Empathy-driven enforcement has the same ultimate goal as punishment driven enforcement (compliance with the rules), but it goes about achieving this goal in the exact opposite way.


There are five key concepts you need to understand with empathy-driven enforcement:

1. You need to accept that your behavior determines 80 percent of patron behavior.

In 80 percent of bad situations, if you had handled the situation differently, the bad situation could have been prevented.

2. The secret is to lead, not follow.

There is an old saying that you can't "push a string." If you try to push a string on a table, it will not do what you want. It will bunch up. If, on the other hand, you pull it on the table, you can make the string do anything you want: make a straight line, a circle, even a triangle.

People are like a string: if you try to "push" them into compliance, they will often not comply. Like the string, they will stubbornly refuse to do what you want. If, on the other hand, you lead them into the behavior you want, you can gain compliance much more easily.

Basically, you want to lead your homeless patrons into the behavior you want from them (calm, quiet, respectful) and not follow them into the very behavior you are trying to stop (frantic, loud, rude). This is a very important concept. Modeling appropriate behavior is a much more effective way of controlling behavior than yelling and threatening.

3. You have tools (lots of 'em!).

The biggest difference between a seasoned librarian and a novice is that the veteran librarian has more tools and knows how--and when--to use each of them. This book is my offer to teach you the tools that we use in homeless shelters. . . .

You need to understand that there are two "types" of tools: "fire tools" and "water tools." Fire tools escalate the tension and friction by punishing. Water tools de-escalate the tension and friction by using empathy.

4. Empathy is always first. Punishment is always a last resort.

5. There are three parts to empathy-driven enforcement: your head, your body, and your words.

This from someone who has spent his career getting compliance following rules from addicts, the mentally ill, the desperate, and others society deems unwanted. If it works for him, I'm sure it can work for us. That is this book's gift, demonstrating that empathy works.

Reviewed by Chris K.
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