Homeless find hope, refuge and community at public libraries

As libraries evolve to reflect the digital age, many are finding their buildings increasingly filled with those from the fringes of society looking for warmth, safety and access to technology.

Social workers are joining librarians to provide help where it's needed

Colin Mulholland, 47, found refuge at the Edmonton Public Library as a homeless person. He is now in his first year of studies at the University of Alberta. (CBC News)

As libraries evolve to reflect the digital age, many are finding their buildings increasingly filled with those from the fringes of society looking for warmth, safety and access to technology. And some of those people are finding unexpected help.

In 2006, Colin Mulholland was homeless, an alcoholic and seething with rage.

"I went through this chaos and ultimately got to the darkest that I've ever been," he said. 

But each morning after leaving a downtown Edmonton homeless shelter, he would make his way to the public library, a place of refuge during those dismal days.

Outreach worker Jared Tkachuk seeks out and supports those down on their luck who show up at the library. (CBC News)
"The library is a natural, because you can come, you can sit. You can read books,” he says. “I'd pretend to read books, because mostly you don't get enough sleep in the missions. So I'd kind of like fake read and sleep." 

Jared Tkachuk is also a regular at the library, but for very different reasons. The veteran social worker was hired to roam the stacks and corridors of the library to seek out and support those like Mulholland who are down on their luck.

"We do a lot of what I call helping to restore dignity for people," he says. "So there's a big social or spiritual component to the job."

Over several months Tkachuk became a friend, listening with a sympathetic ear, and subtly guiding the angry, often drunken Mulholland onto a new path.

Edmonton Public Library deputy CEO Pilar Martinez says social work and libraries are a natural fit. (CBC News)
"It's a funny story between us,” Mulholland recalls, “because for the first few months that I was bumping into him there I didn't even realize that there was an outreach worker relationship going on between me and him." 

While social work may seem like an unusual role for public libraries, it’s a natural fit in Edmonton, according to Edmonton Public Library deputy CEO Pilar Martinez.

“It really is information. It’s a different type of expert that’s providing that information and support so it aligns very, very well with what we’re already doing.” 

A growing trend

A public library can be a warm, safe place, where those without homes, computers or smartphones can check email, Facebook accounts, and even read.

San Francisco was among the first to bring a professional social worker into its library system about six years ago.

“San Francisco was struggling with homeless issues for a number of years,” says library spokeswoman Michelle Jeffers.

At least five libraries in Canada employ social workers to work with the homeless. (CBC News)
Homeless people were using the library, but staff were having difficulty coping with the complexity of their needs. “They have issues bigger than the librarian can answer for them.”

Having the social worker on site has made a difference, she says.

“People have been placed into housing and are getting back on their feet.”

Several of those helped by the library have returned the favour, working as health and safety associates at the library.

The four paid positions are like an internship that allows people to give back, while acquiring skills and adding to their resumés.

Now at least five libraries in Canada employ social workers.

Brantford Public Library in Ontario added a child and youth worker in 2010 in response to problems with unruly teens.

The program was such a success that it now brings in a speech pathologist, public health nurse and dietitian. And the once unruly teens now form the core of a popular youth café held at the library every Wednesday night.

Success in Brantford led to a pilot project in Hamilton, which has just been made permanent.

“We are a community resource, a community hub,” explains Hamilton library spokeswoman Melanie Southern, who calls the library “a common, safe location.”

In Toronto, a public health nurse now spends three days a week at its reference library. Winnipeg has hired an outreach worker to help patrons connect with social and community agencies.

Other libraries across Canada are watching with interest. In St. Johns, it's an issue of funding, not lack of interest. Regina’s Public Library is watching the national trends.

Nature of homelessness changing

“I think some things have changed,” says Eric Weissman, a sociology professor at College of New Caledonia in Prince George, B.C.

Weissman was drug addicted and homeless as a youth, when the local library was both refuge and community centre. The biggest change, he says, is the nature of homelessness.

“A lot of homeless people actually have jobs and have families and need resources, so they use libraries.” he said. “Libraries have always been that central place, that community centre. It’s one of the mandated qualities of libraries.”

Eric Weissman, now a sociology professor, found refuge and community at the public library as a homeless youth.
He calls libraries “the Alamo of urban space for the homeless.” 

“It’s a last stand. I mean urban space is stacked up against the poor,” he said. “When people are occupying urban space and reducing its value we tend to push them away.”     

Tkachuk likes to recall the success stories, even if on the surface they may not seem like much.

A year ago he helped a man with schizophrenia and addictions, who had spent 25 years on the street, finally move into a small apartment.

The man never beat his addictions and died last month, just 10 months after moving into his home.

"The first thing a colleague said to me is at least he didn't die on the streets. And sometimes that's a success story.” Tkachuk notes. “And sometimes it's someone going to university.”

Mulholland is the success story the library likes to point to.

Now 47, Mulholland is in his first year of a bachelor of arts program at the University of Alberta. He’s already received a diploma in social work from a community college.

He credits the library and its outreach worker for helping change his life. "He and the library became a safe place for me to reconnect to." 

Mulholland eventually wants to earn a master's degree — a big jump for someone who had no hope and saw no future for himself. He says libraries can make a difference in many more lives.