Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
With a new resident social worker, the Brooklyn Public Library is pushing staff and patrons toward a culture of inclusivity.
A little after 10 a.m. on a humid Thursday in June, a fan is already whirring in the Bedford Avenue branch of the Brooklyn Public Library. The building has just opened, but already people are pushing through the doors and posting up at computer stations or tables on the mezzanine. Many will stay put all day.
The library, just down the block from a clanging subway station in the Bed-Stuy neighborhood, is a salve for the chafing street noise and the heat. There’s nothing to buy, no time limit, no implication that you’ve overstayed your welcome. The airy, 17,000-square-foot space is a comfortable homeroom for people with nowhere else to be.
And today, there are donuts. Those are a big draw, explains Harold Holloway, as he rearranges coffee stirrers and packets of sugar. Holloway buzzes around a table just off the reference desk, next to a magazine rack holding Latina Style and Highlights.
Holloway is an advocate with the Street to Home program from Breaking Ground, a nonprofit that aims to connect homeless New Yorkers with housing.
As people wander inside, Holloway greets them with a hearty “Hey brother, how you doing?” and waves them over to the table. As they pour a coffee or reach for a sprinkled donut, they can also survey a smattering of handouts: information about where to find a shower, clean pairs of socks and underwear, or a shaving kit; addresses of drop-in shelters that are open 24 hours a day.
Dabbing up spilled coffee, a woman in her late 50s describes spending the last year in a shelter in midtown Manhattan. She’s looking for a new apartment, but the process is complicated. “It’s not like years ago when you could see a posting in a window,” she tells me. Last time she stopped by the library, she says, Holloway helped her create an email address.
Whether or not they’re girded for it, neighborhood branches have become social services hubs. In Brooklyn, it’s a challenge that library staff are trying to meet head-on, right between the stacks.
By sheer volume, New York City’s homelessness crisis has compounded over the past few decades. In April of this year, there were 61,277 people in the city’s shelter system, a slight decline from the record 62,840 counted in November 2016. Durations of shelter stays vary by demographic—single adults tend to have the most abbreviated residency, while families with children under 18 linger longer—but across the board, the average stay exceeds 365 days. Among this vulnerable population, there are profound disparities across racial lines: 58 percent of the residents in the city’s shelters are African American, and 31 percent are Latino; just 7 percent are white.
Homelessness springs from a constellation of factors. On the housing front, there’s the shrinking stock of affordable units, and vanishing protections for rent control. Families looking for low-rent units have a remarkably narrow field to reap. One recent survey from the city’s Department of Housing and Preservation estimated that among the units asking less than $800 per month, the vacancy rate was just 1.8 percent.
Then there are questions about cash flow and a safety net to soften a potential setback. Volatile income streams and insufficient emergency savings dog 67 percent of the residents who live near the Bedford library, according to a 2015 Urban Institute study.
While the city has poured sizable investments into reducing homelessness across the five boroughs, the level of need remains staggering. The de Blasio administration is rolling out a new plan to counter the tide. The strategy aims to reduce the number of people in the shelter system by 2,500 over the next five years. To do so, it proposes dismantling cluster apartments—which consolidate homeless New Yorkers in privately owned buildings—and relocating residents from hotel shelters by 2021. The administration’s plan calls for replacing those facilities with 90 new shelters and expanding 30 existing ones. The timeline projects 20 new shelters in 2017 and another 20 next year.
Homelessness can fracture social networks—kids might be yanked out of school; reliable childcare might disappear. The plan’s architects appear mindful of preserving whatever thin stability remains. “Our goal will be to keep residents in the boroughs they called home when possible, so that breadwinners do not lose jobs, children do not have to switch schools or experience long commutes and people can also be close to their medical needs and preferred places of worship,” the plan reads.
Still, the Coalition for the Homeless’s State of the Homeless 2017 report argues that the mayor’s plan isn’t aggressive enough. The report insists that the problem cannot be solved without a collaboration between city and state actors to finance construction of new affordable housing units. This report calls for an immediate increase in Section 8 housing, and a crackdown on landlords who discriminate against tenants who use housing vouchers to cover their rent.
While those details are hashed out at a policy level, tens of thousands of New Yorkers are grasping for immediate solutions on the ground. A plan that casts its gaze five years on the horizon doesn’t necessarily ease more immediate needs—it doesn’t erase the impulse to find a comfortable seat in an air conditioned room, or a way to spend today, tomorrow, or next week.
Ashley Horn’s voicemail greeting reminds callers that she doesn’t spend much time at her desk. As the library’s first resident social worker, she’s charged with making rounds through all 60 of the borough’s branches.
“Public libraries have always had that acute connection to their communities,” says Nick Higgins, BPL’s director of outreach services. But the ways that branches serve patrons have expanded in recent years. The public library has become a convener of resources for which patrons would otherwise have to make separate trips to various agencies. BPL’s spate of offerings includes tax help, sign-ups for the municipal ID NYC card, legal services, and videoconferencing for kids to connect with incarcerated parents.
Meanwhile, the skills sharpened in library science school don’t necessarily prepare librarians for meeting the complex, holistic needs of their patrons. That’s one reason that library systems are bringing social workers on board. San Francisco’s was the first system in the country to install a social worker, in 2009, but in 2017 “most all of our urban libraries now will have a social worker at least part-time, if not full-time, if not multiple social workers in multiple neighborhood or branch libraries,” says Susan Benton, the president and CEO of the Urban Libraries Council.
In some respects, Horn explains, libraries may be less intimidating than other social service providers: There’s little bureaucracy to navigate; there’s nothing to sign. And Benton points to a rich history of libraries as “safe and trusted spaces,” where patrons expect to find answers to questions that vex them. “There’s tremendous word of mouth on the street in terms of people knowing that they can find particular help at a public library,” she says. “Folks just know.”
Still, employees—however well-intentioned—may feel unprepared to deal with situations outside of their wheelhouse. That’s where partnerships with social workers and outside agencies come in, Benton says. Higgins echoes that sentiment. While the library has long been aware of the need to engage homeless patrons, “we were looking for someone to have the ability to do case management, and wanted an organization that had a direct line to permanent housing for folks,” he says.
Since coming on board 10 months ago, Horn has spearheaded drop-in coffee sessions, by-request appointments, and staff trainings, all with the goal of “shifting the culture of the library toward more inclusion,” she says. Around eight weeks ago, advocates began canvassing the Bedford branch and two others once a month, using the donuts and coffee to launch conversations with patrons and offering to connect them with resources for housing and jobs.
To date, Horn, library staff, and advocates from Breaking Ground have engaged more than 200 patrons system-wide, says Doug Becht, Breaking Ground’s assistant vice president of housing operations and programs. Ideally, he says, the nonprofit’s goal is to place someone in stable housing as rapidly as possible. “But that doesn’t always happen, obviously,” he adds. The path to that long-range goal often requires face-to-face groundwork to build engagement and trust.
Social-services inquiries from patrons aren’t limited to the hours that a social worker is stationed in their library. With that in mind, during her workshops, or when she makes her rounds, Horn models scripts that library staffers can follow to help stoke relationships with patrons and determine which issues they can triage themselves, versus scenarios that ought to be outsourced to agencies. She organizes monthly conference calls with as many as 50 other library social workers across the country, to share stories and work toward a set of best practices.
But broadly speaking, “the first thing you want to do is build rapport with someone,” she says. (She’s cautious not to assume that she can read someone’s history in their hygiene, or any physical baggage they carry with them.) Sometimes, building that rapport begins with noticing a familiar face and saying, “I see you here everyday, and I wanted to introduce myself.” Other times, she might ask patrons if she can sit down with them for a moment, and then what they’re up to, or where they live.
From her seat at the circulation desk, right across from the doorway, Christina Ferrari is well-positioned to spot familiar faces. Ferrari is a children’s librarian at the Bedford branch, and spends at least a few hours a day observing people coming, going, and moving around. Some regulars “treat it like a home base, almost,” she says.
She’s actively involved in the library’s outreach arm. A few months back, she joined Horn’s growing social work committee; every few weeks, she walks over to Kianga House, a shelter for women and children, for storytime. Ferrari has built up their stockpile of books and crafts, and pitches in with homework help—especially when the kids’ parents aren’t fluent in English. And, of course, she signs them up with library cards.
A few hours after one of my visits to the library, Ferrari emailed me to say that she’d put some of those outreach skills to use. A patron wandered over from a nearby men’s shelter, where he’d landed when mounting medical bills led him to foreclose on his home. Many of his records and belongings were lost in the shuffle, including his ID—meaning that, even though he gets pension checks, he can’t cash them. Ferrari wrote that she spent 45 minutes sifting through the papers he brought, looking to cobble together the right mix of documents to qualify for an ID NYC card. They made him an appointment for the ID card, and Ferrari encouraged him to swing by one of the Thursday drop-in sessions to check in. He left optimistic, she wrote. “He said he was leaving feeling more hopeful than he had in quite some time.”
On a Monday afternoon, as we sit around a circular table on the branch’s balcony, David Coberro whips out his wallet to show me a library card with smudged edges. It looks like it’s seen heavy use over the years. He asks if I’ve ever visited the New York Public Library’s branch at Bryant Park, with its grand entrance and soaring ceilings. I have, I tell him. It feels like a cathedral of books. He cracks a grin and holds his arms wide. “Big halls, and those marble steps. Those lions out front!”
Coberro, a born-and-bred Brooklynite with close-shorn, graying hair and a sparse beard, says he earned his GED a number of years ago, then worked in distribution facilities and as a mailroom clerk. The 37-year-old isn’t working now, though, and a few times a week, he rides a train and a bus to get to this branch. He says he’s only traveled as far as Connecticut, but reading opens his world. “I read books, magazines, pass the day,” he says.
From our perch, he rattles off names of other regulars. He points to them, sitting in little crannies of the balcony, leafing through magazines. Coberro rummages in the pocket of his gray sweatpants for his phone; he wants to show me something about a book he’s reading. But his phone’s not there. He sprints downstairs, and finds it on a table. Phone retrieved and safely pocketed, he sits back down and readjusts his silver cross necklace. “This is a close-knit community,” he says. “People respect each other’s things.”
A few years ago, some locals felt that wasn’t true. In 2015, neighbors complained about drug use in the library, prompting the branch to position a safety officer on the floor, and to install key-pad locks on bathroom doors, DNAinfo reported. When I visited this summer, the branch was quiet and clean. Now, when he hunkers down, Coberro says, “it feels like a sanctuary.”
Once in awhile, Holloway says, “people purge themselves of information,” but more often than not, the relationship builds slowly over time, as people see him as a fixture and begin to trust him. “I like to connect with people,” he tells me, “not just give them a flyer.”
When she stops by the table one Thursday, Julieanna Vacca, 25, is seven weeks pregnant. She says she’s a former addict, and wants to get a certification to work at methadone clinics like the ones that helped her kick the habit. But there are lots of obstacles in her way. She doesn’t have stable housing: She’s currently bouncing between her father’s house and a shelter in Manhattan. She’s also looking for a parent advocate, she explains, to help her navigate the court system and regain custody of her three-year-old son.
She gestures with glittery gold nails and fiddles with dangly rhinestone earrings as Holloway takes notes on her situation. He adds her name and number to a sheet full of others.
Holloway’s been talking to another guy who doesn’t have a working cell phone, but Vacca says she often sees him around. If Harold calls her number, she’ll convey the message.
Vacca asks if Holloway will be back next week. She’d like to learn about taking her high-school equivalent exam, and about looking for jobs. Holloway nods. “Same day, same time,” he says. “I will be here.”
He holds out his fist for a bump. “Grab a banana to take with you,” he tells her.
When I call Holloway a few days later to check in on the people I met, he sighs. The folks who promised to come back hadn’t done so. Holloway had faced the same situation with patrons at a different branch, too. No-shows. “They both seemed extraordinarily desperate,” Holloway says. “And neither one is here.”
Holloway and Horn both explain that sometimes comes with the territory. “The goal of my work in the library is meeting people where they’re at,” Horn tells me.
As much as the goal of the social work committee is to buoy staff knowledge and resources for the sake of needy patrons, it’s also intended to be a support system for the people behind the desk. “You hear some heartbreaking stories and it can be hard to let it go,” Ferrari wrote me in an email. She’s hopeful that the trainings can help librarians adjust to a job description that is expanding and fluid. “How do you cope and come to work each day,” she wrote, “refreshed and ready do your best?”