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Could Yellowknife's library be 'a wonderful place to do social work?'

The Yellowknife Public Library is a refuge for many homeless and marginalized people looking for warmth and safety. That's why some say it's a natural place to do social work as well.

'If there are lots of people going to the library, than we should have social workers going to the library'

Yellowknife's library is often used as a warm, safe place for the city’s homeless and marginalized populations to gather during the day. (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

When Paul Tsetta visits the Yellowknife Public Library, he knows he'll spent the next few hours safe and warm — a welcome change from the time he spends wandering the streets, looking for a place to stay.

Paul Tsetta visits the Yellowknife Public Library on a daily basis. 'You can use the bathroom, and you don't have to ask the security guards.' (Rachel Zelniker/CBC)

"They never refuse me," Tsetta said after a leaving the library Tuesday afternoon.

"You can use the bathroom, and you don't have to ask the security guards."

Tsetta is part of Yellowknife's homeless community, and said the people he knows use the library on a daily basis. 

"It's warmer for them. Some of them like to read, some of them don't. Some of them just like to lay down and pretend they're sleeping."

No 'specific' services for marginalized users

Libraries have long served as a refuge for people looking for warmth, safety and access to technology — and that's a tradition the manager of the Yellowknife library says she's proud to continue.  

'I can’t stress enough how much the physical space means to people,' says library manager Deborah Bruser.

"I can't stress enough how much the physical space means to people," says Deborah Bruser.

"It's just a warm comfortable place, and certainly that kind of usage will increase as the temperature drops."

She says the percentage of homeless people who "value" the library for "the space and stay for extended periods," is significant — but there are no services "specific for that segment of the population."

"Within the limitations of our staffing and resources, we are focussing on this time on early literacy, programming for children, teens and also seniors," says Bruser.

'The library is a wonderful place to do social work'

Like Yellowknife, Edmonton's downtown library is often used as a place for the city's homeless to gather during the day.

In 2011, the library hired a social worker to help those visitors access mental health support, housing and employment.

"The library is a wonderful place to do social work, because people are really coming there by choice," said Jared Tkachuk, one of the three full-time social workers the library now employs.

"When you're able to approach someone when they are already feeling a bit safe you can begin to explore a lot more avenues than when you're forcing people to show up at a sterile office at a certain time, and go through all these forms.

Jared Tkachuk (left) is a social worker at the Edmonton Public Library. (Submitted by Heather McIntyre)

"That's just not going to work for a lot of people, especially people with extreme mental health or addiction issues.

Tkachuk spends his days roaming the stacks and chatting with people he thinks may need help.

"We do a lot of advocacy, a lot of referrals, we go with people to appointments, because it can be very intimidating to go to a psychiatrist, or to court."

Tkachuk says the program has been hugely successful, and the people he works with are sending in friends off the street for help.  

"We've had a number of people who are extremely mentally ill, who were not getting any services...and we've been able to get them connected to services, like housing, trauma counselling and addiction treatment."

'We should have social workers going to the library'

Tkachuk says it's "critical to have social workers where people are going... so if there are lots of people going to the library, than we should have social workers going to the library.

"We have this old mentality that people ought to show up to our offices and get help, and you're just not going to serve the most vulnerable people that way."

Tkachuk added that getting people the help they need doesn't have to be resource-intensive.

"Even if you don't have an outreach worker at the library, maybe there's a community agency that can have people coming in once a week.

"That is one way to get things started."

'It could be very beneficial'

Bruser says she's "followed with interest the program that was implemented in Edmonton," and believes "it could be very beneficial."

"It's not possible to achieve with our present staffing, but it something certainly to consider during the future budget cycles."

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