Homelessness will never go away. It is how we respond to it that makes all the difference.
– Elizabeth Skinner, Project Manager and Assistant Library Director
Grant category: Project Outreach and Innovation Grant
About the project: For this project, Forsyth County Public Library (FCPL) partnered with community agencies to improve library services to people experiencing homelessness and to raise awareness of the issues of homelessness in their community. Forsyth County has a significant homeless population and the Central Library had become, “a de-facto day shelter,” according to assistant director, Elizabeth Skinner (pictured above). This sparked the idea to bring the many services offered by area organizations directly to the homeless by meeting them where they liked to gather in the library. FCPL hired a full-time Peer Support Specialist who was trained to work with individuals experiencing homelessness, directing them to essential services and providing informational, educational and recreational programs at the Library. The library was able to hire staff to lead computer classes, offer one-on-one technology help sessions and a “Drop-In Job Seekers Lab.” A few of the recreational programs offered include, Books for Dudes Book Club, a Sunday movie series, and Chess Club.
A major focus of this project was to build an understanding between the community as a whole and its members experiencing homelessness and to foster an environment of inclusivity at the library. To meet this aim, the Peer Support Specialist conducted sensitivity training for library staff and the community at large on homelessness. The library also included programing to facilitate discussions on issues surrounding homelessness. One such program was the, “On the Same Page,” community reads project featuring Chris Gardner and his book “The Pursuit of Happyness.”
Outcomes and results: People experiencing homelessness now feel more welcome at the Library and know that programs are being offered for them. 103 programs were offered as part of this project with a total attendance of 2,036. The Peer Support Specialist reported that 10-20 individuals have received housing through his help in connecting them to the Rapid Re-housing program. The Computer Training Bridge Program can report 15-20 individuals who have either found jobs, or created resumes and even a small business website as a result of the “Open Computer Help” and the “Drop-In Job Seekers Lab” programs.
The project has been recognized both locally and nationally. The FCPL was awarded a Winston-Salem Foundation ECHO Award in May 2015 for staff efforts to build social capital through the “Books for Dudes Book Club” and several newspapers have run features on the program. Just this month IMLS also featured the “Resources and Refuge on the Journey” resource book created by the library on their Facebook page. While all of the recognition is certainly appreciated, according Skinner:
What I am proudest of is responding to a deep criticism from the community regarding the “problem of the Homeless in the Central Library.” It is still the elephant in the room at any community gathering where the Central Library is discussed. I so wanted the library to be proactive about this issue. I want to be able to look people squarely in the eye and explain what we do to respond to this challenge.
Future plans: Forsyth County has committed to funding the Peer Specialist Position in the 2015-2016 County Budget. This is a major victory in achieving the sustainability of the project. The Peer Specialist will work under the Department of Social Services but will operate out of the library. This is the same model as the San Francisco Public Library, which served as a model for this project. Additionally, library staff produced a training video on the project in collaboration with a local documentary film maker for presentation at North Carolina Library Association Conference in October 2015.
Tips for others working on a similar project: The greatest insight of this project has been the no-cost, high return benefit of collaborating with the non-profits who serve people experiencing homelessness in Winston-Salem, NC. The Library is now at the table in all meetings and forums related to homelessness. Employing a Peer Support Specialist when developing a service model for this population is key. The Peer Support Specialist is focused on library service to the target population and is the face of the project in the community and to individuals experiencing homelessness.
Sources and further information:
This is part of a series of posts highlighting ongoing or recently completed LSTA grant projects in NC. Library Services and Technology Act (LSTA) monies are federal funds from the Institute of Museum and Library Services, distributed by population via the federal Grants to States program. The State Library of North Carolina uses a portion of these funds to award competitive grants to eligible North Carolina libraries.