Denver Public Library’s community resource specialists are trained social workers who can help people with everything from applying for food stamps to dealing with trauma.
By Matthew Van Deventer | Photos by Stanley Sigalov
A lonely cart sits on the sidewalk near the entrance of DPL.It’s only midmorning at the Denver Public Library’s Central branch, but Elissa Hardy’s radio is not quiet for long.
“We listen to the security radio to know what’s happening. That’s how we know when we need to go help with things,” Hardy says.
Outside the doors of DPL’s Central branch on Broadway and 13th Avenue, a small group of people experiencing homelessness is trying to figure out what to do with the carts holding all of their belongings. They used to just bring the carts inside the library, but as of April 2016 they are only allowed to bring in three bags.
The group has to leave their carts outside if they want to take refuge from the wet and cold November day. However, if they leave their things outside, they could be taken away by library security and put in lost and found. While the group works with the security guard enforcing the policy at the front door, Hardy is downstairs making sure everything goes peacefully.
Just another day in the life of a community resource specialist (CRS) at the Denver Public Library.
DPL made the decision to hire a full-time CRS in 2014. In the years leading up to that decision, librarians and staff had been feeling increasingly overwhelmed by the number of unanswerable questions they were receiving from patrons—questions about how to find housing, how to apply for food benefits, and even how to go about recovering from identity theft.
The library researched what others cities like San Francisco, Dallas, and Washington, D.C., were doing to work with their homeless clientele. After DPL approached the city about a program to bring in a full-time CRS, the city gave the library two years to “see what happens,” says Hardy, who has a master’s in social work and is clinically certified. She was hired in February 2015.
During the cold days of the Colorado winter, the Denver Public Library sees a large amount of traffic from all types of people.Since then, staff anxiety has gone down significantly because librarians now have somewhere to direct people for those questions they don’t quite know how to answer. And now Hardy supervises another CRS, Kristi Schaefer, who was hired in January 2016. The two spend most of their time working at DPL’s Central branch but are technically responsible for all 26 DPL locations. Should a situation arise that takes precedence over the Central branch’s needs, either Hardy or Schaefer will make a trip to the other location. And if they can’t, they can consult the staff at the other branch on what to do.
“I think that because librarians naturally want to help—that’s what they’re here to do—they want to find solutions. It’s just been a really natural thing,” Hardy says. But librarians are not trained to answer these questions, despite wanting to; hence, Hardy and Schaefer.
“That was one of the scales or measurements, is staff anxiety going down because social workers are here, and I think they’ve found that, yes it is,” adds Schaefer.
Hardy and Schaefer share a corner on the library’s fourth floor. No two days are alike, between keeping up with the security radio, scheduling appointments, and giving their undivided attention to whomever comes through their doors. DPL’s central location averages about 2,490 visitors a day; Schaefer and Hardy will see anywhere from two to 15 people each, per day. They are often individuals they’ve never met before who need help navigating systems or city agencies, but sometimes they are reoccurring customers who Hardy or Schaefer are able to help to an end point.
For example, that same November morning a man with whom Schaefer works regularly came in to leave a bus ticket with her for safekeeping. They worked out a time they could meet later. The man had come to Denver in hopes of finding work, but soon lost all of his identification. That setback made it almost impossible for him to get back on his feet despite working two jobs in-between naps on the streets. It was time to go home and he was entrusting Schaefer with his ticket there.
Hardy explains that they are there to help their customers with whatever they need, but often those needs break down into two categories: logistical and emotional.
Kristi Schaefer is a community resource specialist at DPL. You can spot her on the 4th floor helping people and keeping things organized.Hardy and Schaefer pull on their contacts at the appropriate government agency for logistical inquiries, which could mean helping someone apply for food stamps, figure out why a disability check isn’t coming in, recover identification, or find housing—the latter of which is one of the most frequent requests.
Other times, a librarian may encounter a customer who is making some bizarre statements, like repeated claims that they’ve lost their identity—and not just ID cards, but the essence of who they are.
There was one memorable instance when a 60-something year old woman was in the children’s library—a very protected area of the library—looking for a game for herself because she thought she was six years old.
The woman left before Hardy could get to her and by then there was another crisis to deal with.
Another time, Hardy helped a 56-year-old man get his birth certificate for the first time. With it he could finally get back surgery and go back to work. Not being able to work because of his back was also crushing his self-esteem, something else Hardy helped him work through in the process.
Unfortunately though, because of their workload, neither Hardy nor Schaefer are available to have ongoing therapy sessions. They may meet with their customers multiple times to get them where they are going or check-in with them, but often they refer them to another resource, one they think will help them the best.
“The journey doesn’t end with us,” says Schaefer. “Either we’re bringing other service providers here or we’re helping them get to those service providers.”
They work with a myriad of resources in the area including Colorado Coalition for the Homeless, Brain Injury Alliance of Colorado, Veterans Affairs, Volunteers of America, Mental Health Center of Denver, Urban Peak, St. Francis Center, The Gathering Place, and county-specific resources too.
Elissa Hardy has been a community resource specialist at DPL for about two years. She enjoys her tough job and welcomes people with a friendly smile.Because of the nature of their work, the two specialists see homelessness in many different lights. They see individuals with mental health issues, those with a history of drug abuse, and those fleeing violence. They also see people with disabilities, students, and even families. Hardy and Schaefer have seen from experience that many types of people can experience homelessness. And they also see a common thread: some sort of trauma in the lives of the people they are helping.
“I think it’s a lot of things. I think we need to talk more about trauma when we talk about homelessness and preventing re-traumatization through services…there’s rarely a time when someone is homeless that they don’t have trauma,” explains Hardy. “Sleeping outside itself is trauma.”
Schaefer wants people to start asking, what happened to them and not what’s wrong with them.
They make sure to stay “trauma-informed,” as Hardy puts it, because it’s important not to have a “knee-jerk reaction because someone flips their lid because they’re having a trauma response.”
Back in November, between the post-election season and the most recent homeless sweeps carried out by the city, the homeless community was in an especially heightened “state of hyper vigilance and anxiety of the unknown,” according to Hardy. This means people bringing more things into the library, an increased aggression, and people trying to sleep in the library more often, which is not allowed for safety reasons.
“And people are just yelling, ‘where can I sleep in this city?’” Hardy continues.
When days get really cold, like the snap in early December when temperatures were in the single digits during the day, anxieties and tensions run high and there is a significant increase in mental health symptoms.
The duo tries to coach their customers, helping them work through whatever they are going through in the moment. They are training librarians on how to be more trauma-informed as well. Hardy and Schaefer will check in on their customers, asking them how they are doing or if they need anything, but they don’t push to help them. Instead, they make themselves available for anyone looking for help.
Starting early next year, however, they will be getting some help in reaching out to the homeless population that come to library. The library, in collaboration with the Department of Human Services and Colorado Mental Wellness Network received a Justice Assistance Grant from the Colorado Department of Public Safety’s Division of Criminal Justice. The grant is funding the training and hiring of three part-time peers to work at the library. The peers were once a part of the homeless community, but have since moved into housing and been trained and by the Colorado Mental Wellness Network. They will work to connect with the homeless community that uses the library for warmth, rest, shelter, entertainment, and to work on projects. They will hold private group sessions and will be able to spread the word about Hardy and Schaefer’s availability, which isn’t always known.
Back down on the first floor, the group experiencing homelessness that had been grappling with the library’s new policy earlier in the morning has found a solution: they would each take turns standing outside to watch the carts while the others were inside and off the streets reading, relaxing, and mingling.
They didn’t know about Hardy and Schaefer upstairs. One woman, Tavey, had been on the streets for two years. She started talking about how she wasn’t getting her food benefits and needed to clear up a few sanctions on her account.
Hardy introduced herself to Tavey and asked, “Do you want us to help you out with that today?”
Tavey was interested. She and Hardy quickly made acquaintances and the two worked out a time to meet later that afternoon. Tavey would be well on her way to having one less thing to worry about. ■