Over the past ten years public libraries around the country have been bringing in social workers to connect with and assist customers experiencing life challenges. Some library systems have added social workers to the staff while other systems partner with government agencies and nonprofit organizations that detail a social worker to the library. From Alaska to Arkansas, and from California to New York, you can now find social workers working in public library systems.
Building on this trend, some systems have been looking to individuals who themselves, have been homeless, incarcerated, are immigrants, or in recovery, to connect with customers with similar life challenges. Peers, as this group of professionals is referred to, have lived through the experiences customers are currently facing. Lived experience like this gives peers an immediate connection with customers and an insight into the struggles people are facing. This experience, connection, and insight is invaluable for customers who are looking for support as they navigate the complicated terrain of assessing next steps they want to take in their lives and finding services to support those steps.
In this article you will hear directly from peers who are currently working in public libraries. Each peer offers a glimpse into the work they do on a daily basis and why they are committed to this work.
Jerome Thomas, Certified Peer Specialist
DC Public Library
I am a Certified Peer Specialist working for the DC Public Library. I received my Peer Specialist Certification in 2016, through the DC Department of Behavioral Health after participating in coursework and completing an internship at CPEP (Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program).
The DC Public Library is one of five libraries nationwide that does outreach to the homeless community. The library played an important role in keeping me grounded when I experienced homelessness after returning to the city in 2015. The library is a safe place where I found space to be with myself or to take part in the many activities offered there. Most often, after I left the shelter, I was waiting for the doors to the library to open.
My day now begins in a similar way, except now I am helping others find their way. That help comes in many ways. Some clients have lost everything living on the streets and moving from place to place. So that means literally starting from the beginning. I accompany them to get duplicate birth certificates, if they were born in the District of Columbia. If not, it can be a longer process. With birth certificate in hand, voter registration card is next. Now we can get the vital non-drivers ID that allows them to access services in the District of Columbia. I also do a housing assessment, a tool that the DC Government uses to identify persons experiencing chronic homelessness.
Some clients need mental health assessments, which can take several hours over several days. Some clients need PPD tests to enter a TRP (Transitional Recovery Program). I help my clients manage their appointments and I accompany them. Some clients however are able to manage the METRO and bus systems with minimal assistance from me. I have some returning citizens that have returned to the city after 10, 15, and 20 years away and find it very difficult to navigate the systems. I accompany them as well.
All during the day I try to build rapport and develop supportive relationships with all my clients. I know that desperate feeling that things may never change no matter what I did, but I also remember when I was homeless, I just wanted to make it to another day. It worked for me and I’m sure it will work for someone else.
Health and Safety Associate
San Francisco Public Library
My name is Cary Latham and for the last two years I have been functioning as a Health and Safety Associate (HASA) at The San Francisco Public Library (SFPL). Prior to starting this job I studied for two years at the local community college and received a certificate in Community Mental Health. This program provided free college level training for people with lived experience with mental health challenges. Incidentally, I have 23 years of direct experience as a consumer of mental health services.
I currently work in the library setting, which is a neutral ground, on a social services team. We are guided by a social worker who has been doing this pioneering work for over a decade Primarily we assist patrons who are facing life challenges to achieve goals. This ranges from finding housing to connecting with various supportive resources. Functioning in this role has been a positive and rewarding experience. I will tell the story of my first outreach as an example of the work we do as HASAs.
Sometimes as HASAs we work in pairs and my first outreach was with co-worker Jennifer Keys. Together we struck up a conversation with a patron who seemed to recognize us as safe people to talk to. Possibly we looked safe because we were smiling and standing in a public space and had friendly, receptive body language. We also do not wear any type of official uniform. To us, the man looked a little overwhelmed at first but open to talking. After some pleasantries and small talk he shared a few aspects of his current experience with us. His story was complicated but he spoke with an honest vulnerability that commanded the full attention of my co-worker and myself.
For about ten minutes my co-worker and I were engaged 100% as witnesses to this man’s challenging situation. Several aspects of his story resonated with us both on different levels. As HASAs we all have various levels of lived experience with some of the challenges that patrons present with so we were truly able to empathize with his situation. While non-judgmentally just being with his experience we facilitated a shift in in his energy. After expressing gratitude to this man for opening up and acknowledging just how hard it is to ask for help we reached out to him. We systematically addressed the challenges with concrete resources that we knew of. One of the resources we offered him was a nearby Community Mental Health clinic that I had direct experience with and found to be tremendously useful.
Over all, the outreach felt effective, effortless, and naturally healing. For the first time in our lives we were being paid to do this much needed work. The outreach in the library that day remains crystal clear in my memory. Of course not all outreaches are so successful or memorable, but many serve a similar purpose and have mutual benefits. And as my co-worker and I helped to facilitate a shift towards health and safety in that man’s experience on my first day as a HASA, we were also affected unexpectedly, as it is empowering to have the opportunity to discuss resources with someone who is open to learning about them. In hindsight, that day marked a dramatic change of course in my life towards a greater sense of value, health, and wellness.
Denver Public Library
The day starts off by walking into the library. Before I even step foot inside the building, I’m already being greeted by several customers who I’ve worked with before or new customers I will work with that day. I go up to the offices on the fourth floor and gather my laptop and everything else I’ll need for the day. Our team meets before the library opens to discuss the plan for the day and then customers begin to come in. By now, I have a general idea of the types of questions I’ll be asked and challenges that customers face. However, the beauty of being a Peer Navigator is that we never really know what to expect, but we can always count on being able to make a connection with someone who is encountering challenges that we have experienced as well.
The Denver Public Library is one of only a handful of library systems in the country that has began employing Peer Navigators to connect with the community and assist folks with life challenges and barriers they may be facing. I have been lucky to have worked for the Denver Public Library since I was a teenager and have held several positions within the library. I started as a volunteer, then was hired as an after-school assistant. That position quickly turned into being an assistant for Plaza programming, which assists immigrants and new refugees with resources they cannot access. I was then hired as a shelver, then became a circulation clerk, and finally I am grateful to be a part of the Community Resources Department as a Peer Navigator.
The range of positions I’ve held within the library has given me a wide understanding of the needs of our communities, but has also presented the unfortunate reality that there is a significant gap in available access to resources in order to help individuals and families who find themselves in vulnerable situations. As open as the library is to helping people and providing services to our communities, there are many limitations that I’ve encountered that have not only left me frustrated but that have left customers frustrated and feeling defeated, as well.
As Circulation Clerks, we can find information for people but can only dedicate a limited amount of time to each person. We have to be conscious of the advice we give, we cannot fill out any forms for customers nor can we touch the keyboard they may be using, which is true even for customers who have never used a computer or don’t speak English and are having trouble understanding what the computer is showing them. We can recommend resources but cannot navigate them for folks. These are a few of the limitations I encountered daily which left a sour taste behind, as I wanted to help individuals but couldn’t do so to the extent that they needed.
They came with hope that the library could help them but instead faced frustration at the fact that we could not do what they vitally needed. I was never able to shake off the looks on people’s faces as they expressed that they had no one else to help them, that they wouldn’t get the assistance they needed if the form isn’t turned in by that afternoon, that they wouldn’t have housing anymore, or other negative outcomes that could have easily been remedied were it not for library policies.
In a typical day in my current position as a Peer Navigator, we assist persons seeking shelter for that night, we help them look for clothing and food resources, we assist them in creating email accounts to fill out vital forms for food stamps or social security and a myriad of other resources. We let folks use our phones as there are virtually no other locations with access to free phone calls. We give out snacks if people are hungry. We help people get into treatment if they express that desire and choose to pursue it. What I get to do in this position really has no limits or boundaries because the role is broad, but in a good way, as that allows us to help in any way we can.
Perhaps the most important thing I get to do is talk to folks, to listen to their stories and to relate to them, to tell them I know what they’re going through, to tell them that they are not alone, and telling them that I will do everything I can to help them on their journey.
Jason Knight and Marsha “Shay” Pounds
Kalamazoo Public Library
Jason Knight: There is not a stereotypical day in the library. I normally come in and set a table up with a display of local resources. Somedays this not does not happen as the staff might have identified someone that needs to talk with a peer navigator. We might discuss the local resources, addiction treatment and sometimes they just want someone to listen. I have seen a homeless person move into her own apartment, we worked together at the library to make this happen. I may locate a wheelchair for someone in need of one. I may hand out a hygiene kit with a backpack. I may give a kid a fidget spinner while his/her parent/s are utilizing the computers. The only thing typical about my day is meeting patrons where they are at.
Marsha “Shay” Pounds: My day as a peer navigator at Kalamazoo Public Library (KPL) provides me an opportunity to interact with the patrons and the staff. Every day that I am at KPL I am able to learn something from my peers/patrons and I in return can introduce them to some new available local resources. I’ll walk around the library and try to interact with the patrons and if they seem busy or uninterested, I will not bother them, but I will remind them I am at the library if they need anything. When I am sitting at the KPL/R.I. booth I have a little bit more interaction because the patrons are very curious about the services/information we are able to provide them with. The services the patrons are seeking can vary from housing or just wanting someone to talk to about what’s going on in their lives. Every time I am at the library as a peer navigator, I am thankful the city of Kalamazoo has this service available for the city because a lot of the patrons might need reassurance that there is help and services available for them!