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Shhhhhhhhhh No More!

Posted on May 22, 2015

Over the last year, I have had the privilege of doing three trauma trainings with the Denver Public Library, as well as a presentation at the 2014 Colorado Libraries for Early Literacy Conference in Denver. These trainings have opened my eyes to a critical piece of the care continuum in our communities and, unfortunately, one we often overlook. Growing up in a safe neighborhood and loving home, the library was a place for me to get books and attend certain events. What I have realized is that for many of our clients, libraries play a much bigger role in their lives.

Before moving on, I need to own my own guilt. When I ran programs for youth experiencing homelessness, I would often send my clients to the library to keep them out of trouble. If they got kicked out of school, fired from their jobs, or just didn’t have anything productive to do I would say, “Hey, why don’t you head down to the library for a while.” I had great intentions! I knew if they got bored they often got in trouble, and it seemed like my clients rarely had problems at the library, even though they really struggled to get along with bosses, teachers, me, and other authority figures.

I never thought about what I was doing until recently, when I have had the opportunity to work with some great library staff. (Note: Not everyone in a library is a librarian. Library staff include librarians, circulation staff, security, and other support professionals and administrators.) On my end, I was sending highly traumatized clients, often with mental health and substance abuse issues, into a setting where the staff have had little training on working with these complex issues. Since it seemed to work, I didn’t give it much thought, as there were plenty of things that weren’t working to focus on!

Library staff, far from the shhhhhing librarian stereotype, are a dynamic and compassionate group of people dedicated to creating a free, nonjudgmental, and open space where everyone in the community is welcome. Unfortunately, we still live in a society where many of our shelters have to kick people out every morning with nowhere to go. Many struggle with addiction and other self-destructive behaviors that have made the street both an unhealthy and dangerous place for them. Many, especially in bad weather, have one healthy alternative: the library.

I’ve come to see the library as a unique sanctuary where our communities come together in a way that does not happen anywhere else. My first training was with the Community Technology Center (CTC) team at Denver Public Library. This team manages a bank of 127 computers, as well as running innovative classes and programs for all ages. In one big open computer room, they manage a milieu that includes our clients, children and families doing homework, and people seeking resources ranging from job searches to drug rehab options. Spending some time in the CTC, you realize quickly that every age, race, ethnicity, and economic level is co-existing together in a beautiful harmony (at least most the time!).

Here is the message I want to relay from my experience with library staff: They care deeply about their community and want to create a safe and welcoming space. They are also keenly aware that they are dealing with a highly traumatized and struggling population, and at times can feel overwhelmed as to how they can best assist our clients, who often ask them for resources and help. They are also key advocates for our clients as well. In a world that sees many of our clients as “problems,” or ignores them altogether, library staff are dedicated to giving them the same services and opportunities as any other person that walks into the library.

With the knowledge I have now, I realize that I clearly missed an opportunity many times in my career. I never went down to the library where I sent clients and introduced myself. I never invited library staff to community meetings or collaborations, even though they were the default “day treatment center” for so many of my clients who had no other safe place to go. I never, until recently, shared my training and expertise or offered any support to the library staff that did such an amazing job in making my youth feel they were welcome and safe.

I have to recognize Denver Public Library’s openness to trauma informed services. They recently hired an amazing social worker, Elissa Hardy, to help connect their customers (i.e. our clients) to community resources. She is also supporting staff in looking at policies and procedures, especially around behavioral issues, to bring practices into alignment with trauma informed principles, and provide support when behavioral issues do occur. You can find a recent Colorado Public Radio interview with Elissa here.

In addition, DPL is also starting to train their staff on the impact of trauma on behavior, learning, and well-being, as well as the dangers of compassion fatigue, vicarious trauma, and secondary trauma for library staff. It has been an honor to be a small part of this innovative movement and to work with such a great group of people.

I know most of the members of this blog work with clients who utilize the library as a physically, socially, and emotionally safe sanctuary. I think it is on us, with our expertise on our populations, to reach out to the libraries in our communities. I’m convinced that many libraries would welcome partnerships and inclusion into community meetings and collaborations. I believe you to will find a passionate, brilliant, and active partner who can bring a tremendous amount of resources and experience to the table.

10 responses to “Shhhhhhhhhh No More!”

  1. Matt, Such a unique perspective on this. I will forever see libraries and support staff there in a different light. I appreciate how weekly you inspire me to think differently.
    Sincerely, Erica Carrick

  2. Matt, Such a unique perspective on this. I will forever see libraries and support staff there in a different light. I appreciate how weekly you inspire me to think differently.
    Sincerely, Erica Carrick

  3. John Lozier says:

    Thanks for this, Matt.. At the very first meeting of the Nashville Coalition for the Homeless, we invited the head librarian. She frankly acknowledged that many people without homes congregated there, sometimes troubling other patrons with odd behavior and poor hygiene. But she said that her biggest concern was the children, who were not noisy and disruptive, but silent and inactive — unexpected “abnormal” behavior. She cared deeply. That attitude has continued, and the Nashville Public Library has been widely recognized for its openness and support for people experiencing homelessness.
    A fine Policy Statement of the American Library Association titled “Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement” starts:
    “The American Library Association promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America. These people are affected by a combination of limitations, including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services. Therefore it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies. Concrete programs of training and development are needed to sensitize and prepare library staff to identify poor people’s needs and deliver relevant services. And within the American Library Association the coordinating mechanisms of programs and activities dealing with poor people in various divisions, offices, and units should be strengthened, and support for low-income liaison activities should be enhanced.”
    Peace,
    John

  4. John Lozier says:

    Thanks for this, Matt.. At the very first meeting of the Nashville Coalition for the Homeless, we invited the head librarian. She frankly acknowledged that many people without homes congregated there, sometimes troubling other patrons with odd behavior and poor hygiene. But she said that her biggest concern was the children, who were not noisy and disruptive, but silent and inactive — unexpected “abnormal” behavior. She cared deeply. That attitude has continued, and the Nashville Public Library has been widely recognized for its openness and support for people experiencing homelessness.
    A fine Policy Statement of the American Library Association titled “Extending Our Reach: Reducing Homelessness Through Library Engagement” starts:
    “The American Library Association promotes equal access to information for all persons, and recognizes the urgent need to respond to the increasing number of poor children, adults, and families in America. These people are affected by a combination of limitations, including illiteracy, illness, social isolation, homelessness, hunger, and discrimination, which hamper the effectiveness of traditional library services. Therefore it is crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society, by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies. Concrete programs of training and development are needed to sensitize and prepare library staff to identify poor people’s needs and deliver relevant services. And within the American Library Association the coordinating mechanisms of programs and activities dealing with poor people in various divisions, offices, and units should be strengthened, and support for low-income liaison activities should be enhanced.”
    Peace,
    John

  5. Ryan Porter says:

    Before the turn of the year the city of Albuquerque contacted Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless with an exciting opportunity to partner with the public library downtown in providing services to mutual clients. It has been a growing experience, though it has proved fruitful in connecting people with resources in an environment where by-in-large, people feel safe. The library has become a meeting place for my clients and I who feel the sometimes frenetic energy of AHCH is too much. Library staff have been inviting and engaged with the process and we now have a rep from AHCH at the main library downtown 6 days a week, including a medical outreach on Fridays.
    There are some growing pains around the outreach, though this is an exciting opportunity as the library is, as you have said, a haven. It is warm in the cold winter and cool in the hot summer. People can access many different services, be it computer, internet, wifi, along with traditional library materials. Forming community partnerships is vital to our work of ending homelessness. The library and it’s staff is a terrific resource, and we have found them to be eager partners.

  6. Ryan Porter says:

    Before the turn of the year the city of Albuquerque contacted Albuquerque Healthcare for the Homeless with an exciting opportunity to partner with the public library downtown in providing services to mutual clients. It has been a growing experience, though it has proved fruitful in connecting people with resources in an environment where by-in-large, people feel safe. The library has become a meeting place for my clients and I who feel the sometimes frenetic energy of AHCH is too much. Library staff have been inviting and engaged with the process and we now have a rep from AHCH at the main library downtown 6 days a week, including a medical outreach on Fridays.
    There are some growing pains around the outreach, though this is an exciting opportunity as the library is, as you have said, a haven. It is warm in the cold winter and cool in the hot summer. People can access many different services, be it computer, internet, wifi, along with traditional library materials. Forming community partnerships is vital to our work of ending homelessness. The library and it’s staff is a terrific resource, and we have found them to be eager partners.

  7. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    As a homeless person and writer, I recognize the important role of the libraries that I use in New York City. The Queens Public Libary’s Central branch has become my main office, as I’ve been writing a book. At the CyberCenter, where there is a bank of 70, or so, computers available in the most cosmopolitan and multilingual county in the Nation,I have a pretty good place to work. It’s not ideal, given the activity of humans of all ages not necessarily focused on serious writing; but, should I get to publication, I’d have to mention that library, and others in the City, plus the Workforce1 office, in the acknowlegments. Young people often staff the CyberCenter. While I don’t think they have the training regarding trauma, they do surprisingly well dealing with the demands of the public, and usually with courtesy, a basic skill, along with patience, to parry trouble. Lack of time on a computer is often a complaint of mine. I’m constrained to be creative to find it, or to fight for more. Reading and writing, with a goal in mind, a thesis, have been a major aspect of self-care as I face the perpetual traumas of homelessness. Peace, Philip

  8. Philip J. Malebranche says:

    As a homeless person and writer, I recognize the important role of the libraries that I use in New York City. The Queens Public Libary’s Central branch has become my main office, as I’ve been writing a book. At the CyberCenter, where there is a bank of 70, or so, computers available in the most cosmopolitan and multilingual county in the Nation,I have a pretty good place to work. It’s not ideal, given the activity of humans of all ages not necessarily focused on serious writing; but, should I get to publication, I’d have to mention that library, and others in the City, plus the Workforce1 office, in the acknowlegments. Young people often staff the CyberCenter. While I don’t think they have the training regarding trauma, they do surprisingly well dealing with the demands of the public, and usually with courtesy, a basic skill, along with patience, to parry trouble. Lack of time on a computer is often a complaint of mine. I’m constrained to be creative to find it, or to fight for more. Reading and writing, with a goal in mind, a thesis, have been a major aspect of self-care as I face the perpetual traumas of homelessness. Peace, Philip

  9. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom says:

    Dear Matt,
    I have been involved in LA area children’s policy and philanthropy work for a number of years and in 2012 became aware of the amazing humanitarian support being offered by LA’s city library staff in over 70 branches to our homeless children and youth. Like in many areas of the country, our libraries were not being included in any of the region-wide collaboratives around homelessness, and were not linked to local providers. Yet quietly, librarians around the county were establishing trusted relationships with youth in need and wanted to do more. In 2012, in response to a librarian’s request, I created a city Directory of Services for Homeless Youth and gave it to the LA City library system to assist them in locating support services for the homeless youth they encountered in their work. In May 2015, with support from LACOE’s Homeless Program Office, we took it countywide and published the 2015 LA Directory of Services for Homeless Youth. We are in the process of offering 2 copies to every library in the county. The Los Angeles City Library in has already placed the directories in every one of their branches and the county library system is working on efforts to take distribution as well. Our libraries commitment to supporting homeless youth is too often off the radar while their continued efforts to offer a safe place for homeless and at-risk youth is inspiring. Here in LA, our City Librarian, has taken extra steps to support these youth and has offered to host the Directory’s pdf on the city library’s youth portal and to publicize the mobile application we have in development (WIN: What I Need) expected to launch in summer 2015. (WIN has been designed with input from homeless youth around the county and the app will empower youth to locate services they been such as shelter, food, education, jobs, drop in centers, health and so much more).
    In LA as well as cities all across the county, libraries offer safe spaces, niches and rooms designed with youth in mind, access to resources, nonjudgmental environments, and the opportunity to connect and build trusting relationships with adults librarians. In echo of the sentiments of your article, I hold up the LA Librarians, particularly our teen librarians as critically important folks to be supported and included in the dialogue about how to address youth homelessness in our communities. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, Founder/President Our Children LA/WIN What I Need

  10. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom says:

    Dear Matt,
    I have been involved in LA area children’s policy and philanthropy work for a number of years and in 2012 became aware of the amazing humanitarian support being offered by LA’s city library staff in over 70 branches to our homeless children and youth. Like in many areas of the country, our libraries were not being included in any of the region-wide collaboratives around homelessness, and were not linked to local providers. Yet quietly, librarians around the county were establishing trusted relationships with youth in need and wanted to do more. In 2012, in response to a librarian’s request, I created a city Directory of Services for Homeless Youth and gave it to the LA City library system to assist them in locating support services for the homeless youth they encountered in their work. In May 2015, with support from LACOE’s Homeless Program Office, we took it countywide and published the 2015 LA Directory of Services for Homeless Youth. We are in the process of offering 2 copies to every library in the county. The Los Angeles City Library in has already placed the directories in every one of their branches and the county library system is working on efforts to take distribution as well. Our libraries commitment to supporting homeless youth is too often off the radar while their continued efforts to offer a safe place for homeless and at-risk youth is inspiring. Here in LA, our City Librarian, has taken extra steps to support these youth and has offered to host the Directory’s pdf on the city library’s youth portal and to publicize the mobile application we have in development (WIN: What I Need) expected to launch in summer 2015. (WIN has been designed with input from homeless youth around the county and the app will empower youth to locate services they been such as shelter, food, education, jobs, drop in centers, health and so much more).
    In LA as well as cities all across the county, libraries offer safe spaces, niches and rooms designed with youth in mind, access to resources, nonjudgmental environments, and the opportunity to connect and build trusting relationships with adults librarians. In echo of the sentiments of your article, I hold up the LA Librarians, particularly our teen librarians as critically important folks to be supported and included in the dialogue about how to address youth homelessness in our communities. Denise McCain-Tharnstrom, Founder/President Our Children LA/WIN What I Need

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