A schizophrenic woman, barred from returning to a homeless shelter. A man talking to “someone that wasn’t visible.”
When librarians get to know their patrons, they recognize signs of distress. Now, a unique intramural partnership bridges the Dauphin County Library System and county Human Services to create new avenues in crisis response.
Under the initiative, staff members at McCormick Riverfront Library in downtown Harrisburg have been trained in available county services, including drug and alcohol, crisis intervention, children and youth and mental health. When a patron–or a “member” in library lingo–appears to be in need, staffers call Human Services, which sends a caseworker equipped to help.
The partnership parallels a new effort to offer services focused on the customer—the library visitor. Enforcement of rules remains in place, but with an empathetic nod to the varied perspectives of patrons, including the homeless.
In June, staff systemwide were trained by Chicago homeless shelter director Ryan Dowd in the empathy-based approach he developed to help libraries deal with homeless patrons. When librarians understand that homeless people see things differently, they learn to use terms, tone and body language that prevent situations from escalating into conflict.
Most people see the “obvious things” attracting the homeless to libraries—“warm in the winter and cool in the summer,” Dowd told TheBurg. However, libraries are “about everything that homelessness is not,” offering quiet, activities and “a reprieve from homelessness.”
With the partnership, library officials hope that patrons see Human Services as “a less scary entity, with people that are approachable,” said library Public Services Director Lori Milach. “They shouldn’t be concerned that the government is after them should they have requests for services.”
There’s no need to read the minds of library patrons or profile them by appearance. Patrons are “very open with us,” said McCormick Riverfront Library Manager Lisa Howald.
“Lots of folks will just talk to us about what’s going on with them,” she said. “Part of what I love about working here is the relationships we have with our patrons.”
Relationships drive the initiative.
In the case of the patron conversing with an invisible partner, library staff recognized that he wasn’t his normally chipper self, said McCormick Riverfront Library Supervisor Chris Black. He consulted with Human Services and determined that the situation “could be considered a crisis because the behavior isn’t what we were used to seeing from that individual.”
A Human Services staffer arrived for a chat, but “this person decided they were fine and weren’t really actively seeking help,” Black said. “A lot of times, that’s what we’ll find.”
The initiative bolsters a Human Services office open to “all the help we can get,” said Director Randie Yeager.
“I don’t care what route we take to get folks connected, as long as they know what resources are available, how to access them, and talk to whoever they’re comfortable talking to,” she said. “There are many, many paths.”
The effort started as a pilot in spring 2019, with plans to expand into Dauphin County Library System’s eight sites.
Librarians say that their new roles converge neatly with their career choices. Libraries “provide the resources that people want to use, whether it’s books or multimedia or computer access or programs,” said Howald. “We’re a completely public and democratic institution. Anyone can walk in here and use our services, and anyone does.”
The importance of human interaction is embedded in library science studies, said Milach.
“With everything we do, they’re all about making that human connection, and the importance of that is because libraries are one of the last places to have that human connection,” she said.
Dauphin County libraries are among those nationwide re-envisioning their spaces as community centers, program-packed destinations and the “third space” that people crave in the internet age, Dowd said. Dauphin County Library System recently announced acquisition of the historic mansion next door to that McCormick Riverfront Library, freeing space that dovetails with a strategic vision for increased STEM and arts programming, as well as the growing Human Service partnership.
Librarians are “really egalitarian” and not just with lip service, said Dowd.
“The libraries I go into are way more crowded than 10 years ago,” he said.
Public investments in libraries are crucial, especially during economic downturns, “because people seek out resources, opportunities, jobs and the ability to connect in a way they probably couldn’t afford to connect,” said Dauphin County Commissioner George Hartwick. The county must “understand who the people are that we serve,” and the library initiative—which has not generated additional costs, participants say—serves that goal.
“We don’t want more burden on taxpayers, and we also want to figure out a way to coordinate and develop services that are not going to be in siloes,” Hartwick said.
Library personnel have developed trust with homeless patrons and others in need, and “wherever that trust exists, it’s a great place to make sure that the information and resources are available,” he said.
Because libraries touch every segment of the community, said Yeager, they “help break down the stigma of needing some type of assistance in any realm.”
Black realizes that he is making a difference, guiding community members toward better quality of life amid their day-to-day struggles to survive. The library, he believes, is “one of the last bastions of freedom, where everyone is welcome to partake in the information that we have.”
“All human beings are looking for a connection with fellow human beings,” he said. “They don’t want to feel like outsiders. They want a place where they feel like they belong.”
The McCormick Riverfront Library is located at 101 Walnut St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.dcls.org/mrl.