May 19, 2017
At the Denver Public Library, helping the homeless is a necessary challenge
by Kait Howard
As we’ve previously written, while libraries across the country face potentially reduced funding under President Trump’s budget plan, it’s easy to forget just how expansive their roles in our communities are.
Earlier this week, the Colorado Public Radio’s Michael Sakas reported on the changes at the Denver Public Library since it hired two full-time social workers to support the library staff. When the decision was made two years ago, the library was only one of handful across the country to have a social worker—now there are dozens—and it seems to have only shed more light on the needs of the city’s homeless population.
One of the library’s social workers, Elissa Hardy, told Sakas that the library had essentially become Denver’s largest day shelter, and the only one where people struggling with homelessness can come and “be another human in the community.” Having social workers on hand has alleviated the burden on librarians who might not have the training or tools to address the needs of the library’s most vulnerable patrons. And while Hardy noted there had been pushback from some people who worried that adding these kinds of resources might take away from other initiatives, “like children’s learning,” she described her job as part of the library’s attempt to find “a way toward balance.” As city librarian Michelle Jeske told Sakas, providing homeless services was a role the library had “not asked to play, but are playing,” given that these people have nowhere else to go.
The transition hasn’t been without challenges. According to the Denver Post’s Tom McGhee, social workers served 1,265 people in 2016, “referring many to help with housing, substance abuse and mental health treatment,” and yet they saw an uptick in calls to responders “for medical emergencies or to take someone to detox.” As Sakas previously reported, the library had to begin stocking Naloxone since a man died of an overdose in one of their bathrooms on February.
Of course it’s part of the work that libraries have always done, often with less training and insufficient staffing. As Mary Stansbury, head of the Library Information Science Program at the University of Denver, told Sakas, “[p]ublic libraries have for decades have been essential organizations, not just for homeless people but also as a conduit for connecting the agencies in whatever community that library might be in, that serve the homeless.”
Kait Howard is a publicist at Melville House.