My work at the Denver Public Library over the past year and a half has opened my eyes to the innovative ways in which libraries can play a role in addressing the needs of a city’s homeless population. The rate of homelessness in Colorado is staggering, and it is unfortunately on the rise. Last year the number of homeless people in the state rose by 13 percent, according to a report by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development.
In 2012, the Denver City Council voted to ban homeless camping on public and private property. Since then, police have been “sweeping” out urban encampments and forcing out people living in makeshift camps — even though most of them have nowhere else to go. The homeless population of the city is currently part of a class action lawsuit against the city for constitutional rights violations because of these sweeps.
Since the last major sweep in December 2016, many homeless people have converged in front of City Hall and the main branch of Denver Public Library. It quickly became obvious that there was a need for the library to step in and help. Here are some of the programs that the library has implemented that are geared towards the homeless:
1. Hard Times Workshop
The library has partnered with the Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop, a local literary arts center, to host a weekly writers’ workshop for anyone going through a hard time. Since its inception in May 2016, the program has been one of the better attended initiatives at the library, with a core group of 20 people attending consistently. Many of the members have been paid for pieces published in the Denver Voice, a street newspaper in the city.
These workshops are evolving into a series funded by the Institute of Museum and Library Services (IMLS) grants. They have expanded from just the writing workshop to include programs in arts education, hard times meditation, and yoga for stress reduction.
2. The Laundry Truck
The library has partnered with Bayaud Enterprises, a nonprofit organization working to help people find and maintain employment in Denver. Bayaud Enterprises’ laundry truck helps people maintain positive hygiene. Starting in May 2017, the laundry truck will be stopping at the main branch of Denver’s library twice a month.
3. Training in Anti-Overdose Medicine Administration
Heroin-related deaths in Denver increased by 933 percent since 2002, the Denver alternative weekly Westword reported earlier this year. In a two week period at the beginning of 2017, six people overdosed at the library. As a result, the library started to keep Narcan, an anti-overdose nasal spray, in stock. The spray was used on the very first day it was available at the library. Security guards and other staff members at the library have been trained on administering the spray.
4. Community Resource Specialist and Peer Navigators
In 2016, the library hired two community resource specialists — social workers — and most recently, three part-time peer navigators.
The community resource specialists have drop-in hours every day. Hardy states that during the drop-in sessions, she meets with people and helps them with various needs, including finding affordable housing and registering for benefits. Because of the hundreds of people in need of help, Hardy says they are not set up to do case management. Instead, she works to connect people with existing programs outside the library. The social workers also offer free bus passes, socks, snacks, and water bottles to patrons who need them.
Hardy and her colleague Kristy Schaefer are also responsible for offering assistance at the 26 branches of the Denver Public Library system. Due to their limited availability, they currently go to other branches only as needed, although Hardy acknowledges the growing need at other branches.
5. Coffee Connections
On the fourth Wednesday of every month, library staff is encouraged to spend some time with patrons at the Coffee Connections program. “We offer snacks, crafts, and games at coffee connections,” says Elissa Hardy, community resource specialist at the library. “We are looking to bridge the relationship between library staff and customers.”
All these programs have been highly successful in helping homeless people meet their immediate needs and find resources that could change their lives in the long term.