October 2017 | Volume XXXV. Issue 5 »

Unsheltered, but Not Unserved

September 29, 2017
Megan Millen, Joliet Public Library

On any given day, you can find Richard Woodhall strolling around the ample perimeter of Joliet Public Library’s Ottawa Street Branch. At first glance, his purpose might not be clear. However, if you watch him long enough you’ll see him interacting with some of Joliet’s homeless population, many of whom use the library during the day as a base camp.
According to a one-night national survey last January, 564,708 people in America were living on the streets, in cars, in homeless shelters, or in subsidized transitional housing. In Joliet during this same time period, 290 people were homeless, 34 percent of them families with children. The City of Joliet has worked hard to combat this issue by partnering with many social service agencies and the public library.

As part of the library’s strategic planning process that began in 2014, Joliet residents let us know that although they loved their library, there was a persistent perception that the downtown library facility was unsafe, despite the presence of security personnel. These perceptions were reported to be related to homeless individuals loitering around the front of the library and others sleeping inside. Denise Zielinski, new to her role as community engagement officer, knew she would have to find a creative way to confront the challenge. 

In February 2016, Zielinski was contacted by Merridith Montgomery, the homeless services director from the Will County Center for Community Concerns (WCCCC), to discuss the challenges of assisting the homeless. After an initial conversation, Zielinski’s first step was to find out more about the providers and services currently available. She began attending a monthly meeting of community organizations whose goal was to end homelessness. She learned much about the homeless community, the services available to them, and the various assistance programs. This process was a catalyst for thinking about ways in which the library could be more than a venue for the homeless to simply hang out.

When Zielinski attended her first “Consumer Committee” meeting—which catered to the center’s consumers, i.e., those who are essentially unsheltered—a light bulb popped on. While the meetings themselves were very beneficial to the attendees, the meeting location was a huge barrier to active participation by the homeless. Many of them had no access to a car or bicycle, and the bus service was very inconvenient. In addition, WCCCC coordinated services to the homeless for the neighboring counties. These surrounding communities didn’t have facilities and services for their homeless, and local police officers were now bringing them to downtown Joliet for assistance. Zielinski suggested that the “Consumer Committee” meet at the library where the “consumers” could walk to the meetings. The group started meeting at the library once a month and found that attendance by the homeless increased. The homeless individuals spoke about their issues in obtaining adequate housing, securing jobs and dependable transportation, and generally getting their life back on track.

Now that a dialogue had started, the library and WCCCC wanted to take their successful partnership to the next level. How could they work together to assist the homeless in finding services and housing? Zielinski and Montgomery collaborated on a service called “Office Hours.” The library provides the private space for assessments and WCCCC provides staff that can assist the homeless with all aspects of their assessments, including housing, jobs, driver’s license, birth certificate, social security card, health issues, and more. The space is staffed twice a month for two hours at a time. In addition to the “Office Hours,” the library hosts a “Coffee and…” with the homeless at the library on the first Thursday morning of each month for an hour. There are no pre-set agendas; the library provides coffee, tea, and baked goods; the attendees bring the topics to discuss; and the staff of both organizations get to know the individuals on a personal level and to listen and offer assistance when needed.

Joliet Public Library also set up a Giving Tree to benefit the homeless during the last holiday season. From November to the end of the year, the library collected pre-determined items such as water, clothes, coats, scarves, mittens and gloves, boots, hats, tents, sleeping bags, blankets, tarps, flashlights, and batteries. In December, a winter supplies giveaway for the homeless was held at the library. By that date, there were more than enough items to supply sixty-five homeless individuals with food and water and the necessities for keeping warm last winter. By providing these services, the homeless in Joliet have come to see the library as a resource and safe space. The library has worked hard over the last few years to change public perception, to train staff to better interact with special populations, and to be a good community partner. Here are some of the positive results:

  • At the library, loitering and sleeping have decreased significantly and incident reports involving the homeless have decreased commensurately.
  • The perception of the homeless by library staff is much more positive and accepting.
  • Between 2015 and 2016 Point-in-Time counts, homelessness decreased 14.7 percent in Joliet.
  • Between 2016 and 2017 Point-in-Time counts, homelessness further decreased 2.76 percent in Joliet and 34 percent in Will County overall.

Rather than ignoring the homeless, Joliet Public Library is now engaging with them in a meaningful way. Rather than ignoring them, the library now brings services they need to where they are. Which brings us back to Richard Woodhall, who was strolling around the Ottawa branch at the beginning of this article. Woodhall chairs the Consumer Committee for Will County Continuum of Care. His job is to seek out those who are homeless—whether temporarily displaced, chronically homeless, or victims of abuse. These individuals often will talk to him because he understands them, having once been homeless himself. Now he is the best liaison between Joliet Public Library and the homeless community.

Aurora Public Library, which serves the second largest population in Illinois, is located down the street from the second largest homeless shelter in the state. The proximity can bring its challenges, according to Daisy Porter-Reynolds, executive director of the library. “Many homeless individuals are here all eleven hours of the day that we’re open. We sometimes struggle to meet all of their needs, while at the same time serving other customers’ needs.” However, Porter-Reynolds says her staff is fortunate to have the assistance of Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, the homeless shelter in Aurora. Dowd has produced a video series for public librarians called, “The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness,” and it stars the Aurora Public Library staff.

As part of a strategic planning process, Aurora Public Library conducted a focus group with homeless customers. The biggest issue that was uncovered through this process was that they just want to be treated equally. They weren’t asking for more than other people had. They simply wanted to be treated like humans. And they really wanted to check out some materials. As a result of this focus group, the library changed its circulation policy and began issuing a Restricted Use Card to customers without a permanent address. A shelter ID is required to obtain this card, which allows the same use of the Internet as other customers and also allows them to check out two items at a time.
Porter-Reynolds reports that from the inception of the program in December 2016, fifty-four Restricted Use Cards have been issued and of those, only two had any lost items.

Rockford Public Library is another library situated in a downtown area near homeless shelters. According to Executive Director Lynn Stainbrook, Rockford is a “have-and-have-not” city. While it has a surprisingly healthy tourism industry with the only Frank Lloyd Wright house with wheelchair access, beautiful Japanese gardens, and many parks and museums, the loss of manufacturing jobs has really hurt. Without the education or ability to get a different job, many Rockford residents have ended up with nowhere to live.

The Rockford Public Library has tried to help by issuing a Temporary Resident Card to anyone who brings in a letter from a Rockford homeless shelter. The card grants them the exact same privileges as other customers. Stainbrook says, “Creating a sense of trust with a group of people who have spent generations in poverty and who have never seen the library as belonging to them has been a struggle.” To help staff understand the nuances of working with unsheltered individuals, the library has purchased Ryan Dowd’s video series and requires all staff to watch.
Not only large cities that ring Chicago have experienced an influx of unsheltered individuals. Rick Meyer, director of Decatur Public Library in central Illinois, can relate very well to the challenges faced by the Joliet, Aurora, and Rockford communities. Decatur’s library is situated across the street from Central Park, where many of the homeless sleep and spend the night. Once the library opens in the morning, they take up residence. Meyer says that public perception is far worse than how the homeless actually behave. For example, at a recent community event, he encountered a lady who told him she loved his library but always patronized a neighboring library instead. When asked what it would take to win her back as a patron, she said, “Get the homeless out of there.” Instead of taking that advice, his response has been to work with the homeless to safely share the space. The staff formed a proactive committee to create a consistent patron behavior policy that empowers staff. In addition, they also issue Temporary Library Cards that grant Internet access and up to five books to a homeless individual if they bring a letter from
a shelter.

While working with a homeless population and the negative connotations that many people associate with these individuals can be a considerable challenge, Illinois public libraries are rising to meet it. The role of a public library may have evolved over time, but the essence of its core mission—to help people to elevate themselves and improve their lives—is embodied in serving those who find themselves without a home.

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