By Sarah Harvey
Photos by Mike Bohner and Giles Clasen
The central branch of the Denver Public Library has hired a full-time social worker as a resource for library staff and customers. In doing so, DPL joins the ranks of a handful of libraries across the country hiring social workers to proactively address the needs of the diverse populations they serve.
Simone Groene-Nieto remembers a man who came into the library after finding out he was being evicted. The man had a matter of days to find another option. “He had never used a computer before, he’s frantically trying to find work and connect with a program that can help him,” said Groene-Nieto, a librarian in the Denver Public Library’s Community Technology Center. Though the CTC offers a wide array of computer skills classes and training, it wasn’t best equipped to deal with the man’s urgent needs. “It’s really frustrating to not be able to help people as much as they need,” said Groene-Nieto.
Groene-Nieto is thrilled with Denver Public Library’s decision to hire a full-time social worker at its central branch: “I think it sends the message definitely to staff, and I think also to the public, that we’re really seriously committed to equal access for all.”
New social worker Elissa Hardy, who started her job on Feb. 23, will be a resource for anyone experiencing a barrier to using library services—including the library’s homeless customers.
In her first month on the job, Hardy immediately began connecting people with resources and agencies. Currently, she’s meeting with about five library patrons a day, but she anticipates that number will increase. More than anything so far, she’s getting requests for housing help. Hardy comes from a background in working with the homeless—making her well equipped to help library patrons seeking information on housing and other services.
But Hardy is not just a resource for the homeless. She is also there to aid library staff members who receive questions about housing and other resources every day.
Urban libraries have increasingly become ersatz day shelters. This is acutely experienced in the CTC, which has 127 public computers. Most days, 60-80 people show up within the first half hour of the center being open. On extremely cold days, extremely hot days, and on Sundays—when the center has shorter hours—the room fills up even more quickly. Groene-Nieto estimates that about half of that group is probably experiencing homelessness—though she is careful to point out that you can’t tell someone is homeless just by looking at them. Her estimate is based on certain visual clues—such as a large number of bags or luggage—and the types of resources people are asking for help with.
Those 127 computers see an average of 18,000 logins per month (individual logins are for two hours of computer time). In a 2013 survey conducted by the library, 63 percent of customers said they used the CTC for job-related searches. As the gateway to the Internet for many people experiencing poverty and homelessness, the CTC also frequently gets customers looking for information on food and shelter. “This is where they are,” said Groene-Nieto. “We need to meet them where they are.”
Homeless Services Action Committee
Though the social worker position at the central branch is brand new, DPL has been informally investing in staff support and outreach for a few years. The hiring of Hardy is the most recent outcome of the efforts of a staff and administration dedicated to providing excellent customer service to all the library’s patrons—including those experiencing homelessness.
One such employee is reference librarian Hillary Estner. Before Estner began working at the DPL’s central branch almost ten years ago, she volunteered serving meals in Civic Center Park with an organization called Food Not Bombs. At the library, Estner saw many of the same people she would see at the meals. She knew some of the people she recognized in the library were homeless.
Along with a small group of other staff members who were concerned about better serving library patrons experiencing homelessness, Estner organized a forum on homelessness for library employees. During the forum, which happened in Jan. 2012, outreach workers and a woman who was formerly homeless came to talk to staff. The people who came to that first forum and were interested in continuing to work on issues facing the homeless ended up forming a Homeless Services Action Committee.
HSAC formed in part to help staff share knowledge across library departments. “People experiencing homelessness are still part of all of these other communities we serve, whether it’s adults, or seniors, or children,” said Estner. “People usually don’t just belong to one group.” Since forming, HSAC has mainly focused on internal training, such as inviting people from outside organizations to educate staff so that they can make better decisions and better referrals. Over the years, HSAC has received good support from library HR and administration.
During a presentation to the library’s executive team in March 2012, HSAC brought up the idea of a library social worker. “Last spring,” said Estner, “the executive team approached the Homeless Services Action Committee and asked us to do background research on barriers to library services for people experiencing homelessness and how other library systems are overcoming those barriers.” This research ultimately ended up as part of a proposal to hire a social worker, included in the library’s 2015 budget proposal process.
The social worker is there to help anyone experiencing barriers to service at the library. “We’re a really public place so people can have all kinds of emotional or behavioral issues that I think she’ll be able to help with,” said Estner.
Hardy’s job as social worker is currently a two-year funded position. She hopes it can become a permanent position with the city and the library, and that eventually the program could expand to other branches. Hardy sees many possibilities for the future. The San Francisco library, for example, has hired formerly homeless individuals to do outreach in the library. They approach people and strike up conversations about resources or alternatives, sans judgment. “I love that idea,” said Hardy. “They’re the ones that have the most experience.”
One goal of hiring a full-time social worker is a decrease in 911 calls. There will always be times when the library has to call 911, but if Hardy can intervene with someone who has mental health issues, connect with that person when he or she is having a good day, then she might be able to prevent unnecessary calls.
Though the library feels that most security incidents are quickly and easily handled by their security department, Denver Police are sometimes called—but only when absolutely necessary for serious incidents such as violent or illegal behavior. Chris Henning, Marketing Communications Manager for the Denver Public Library, estimates that the police are only called once or twice a week for security concerns. That’s usually for folks who are banned or are engaged in illegal activity. “Our team deescalates the situations most of the time,” said Henning.
Some of those security incidents start in the CTC. Besides searching for jobs, customers in the CTC are also using Facebook, watching movies, and using a computer for downtime. Anything that might be done on a home computer, people are doing on a computer at the library—including watching porn, an offense that comes with one warning before security intervenes and asks the person to leave.
Although her job in the CTC can be challenging, Groene-Nieto loves the work. “I signed up for it. The only reason I became a librarian was I wanted to work at the CTC.”
Sometimes other people—housed people—complain about the homeless patrons of the CTC. While some complaints are issues library staff needs to address, other times the complaint has more to do with someone not wanting to share a library with those experiencing homelessness. In those instances, “we tell them that the public library is a public space, and that if they want to use a public space, they need to make themselves prepared to deal with other people,” said Groene-Nieto. And though people are banned from the CTC for watching porn or behaving inappropriately, people can also be banned for intolerance. “It’s really important that everyone treats everyone with respect,” said Groene-Nieto.
The idea of equitable access for all is at the crux of the decision to hire a social worker for DPL’s central branch. In hiring Hardy, the library hopes to improve access for all Denverites—both in terms of making sure staff is well educated on the needs of the city’s most disadvantaged citizens, and also just making sure that they can provide the best possible customer service for all. ■
By Dwayne Pride, VOICE vendor
It is difficult for people that are on the street to find the resources to help themselves get off the street —for good, or just for the afternoon. No matter where street people may go there is a chance they might be penalized for loitering. Being asked to leave is as common as trying to find a place to go. One of the best places to go is a place that is the most inviting. What could be more inviting than a nice warm place where you can read all kinds of new books and magazines, surf the Internet, watch movies, or just grab a cup of coffee. At the Denver Public Library all of this and more is possible.
Many are using the library as a sort of day shelter. So for the homeless in the city, it is a refuge to get to some of the resources that they normally cannot find. For those really wanting to get something out of their time in the library, there is the Community Technology Center. It’s part of the fourth floor of the library that is dedicated to helping people that come in the library sharpen up their computer skills. The CTC is a place that can teach things that normally might not be part of your skill-set, and all of this teaching is done free of charge.
Last month I attended the Resume and Job Search Lab with Melanie. She is one of the main instructors with CTC. For her it is a part-time thing since she now works at another library branch in the city. This lab is similar to the Open Lab that CTC holds every Tuesday afternoon from 3-5 pm. Everything is pretty laid back during the open lab. People can just come in to use the computers to work on their resumes and search for jobs.
One of my favorite classes is Facebook 101 and Marketing with Facebook. You can learn all of the ways to use the social network. Ever since I took the classes at CTC, my Facebook page has really become one of my main occupations, along with the Denver VOICE. Everything CTC does is really great and open to the public.
Internet use lasts up to two hours, so other activities at the CTC are ways to stay inside and use the facilities.
“We don’t want to make any assumptions about people who are experiencing homelessness or low income folks, but we have a lot of reason to believe that large portions of our population are homeless,” says Simone Groene-Nieto, who teaches all of the social media classes. She said that much of the patronage comes from the homeless and feels that anybody that comes to the library is a good thing. ■
Check out Facebook/pride.dwayne