A regular patron at the Hilo Public Library needs more than books and internet access.

She sits at the same table every day. Sometimes she looks distressed and pulls out some of her hair. Other times she sits calmly for hours.

Michelle Moore, the library’s director, does what she can to help the woman and others like her who spend their days at the library. Moore supplies them with pamphlets about nearby social services. Sometimes she even offers food and blankets that she pays for herself.

Natanya Hawaii State Library. 24 jan 2017
A man reads while a clerk collects books at the Hawaii State Library main branch in Honolulu. Natanya Friedheim/Civil Beat

Similar situations are playing out at the 50 public libraries scattered across the islands. Patrons sometimes approach librarians to ask where they can sleep for the night. More often, they ask for help applying for jobs or accessing health care.

“Libraries are a touch point for people to get information and basic resources,” said Scott Morishige, the state homeless coordinator.

He said his office is looking to collaborate with libraries and other “touch points,” including health care facilities and the state’s courts.

Now Libraries Are Asking For Help

Libraries in particular are beacons for people in need of help, because they invite all members of the public to come and go freely, and use resources free of charge.

“We don’t judge anyone as they come in,” said Hawaii State Librarian Stacey Aldrich. “That’s the beauty of a library. That’s the way it should be. We’re one of the most democratic spaces.”

For decades, American public libraries have integrated social welfare programs into their services, according to Julie Todaro, president of the American Library Association.

Hawaii State Library
The Hawaii State Library main branch in Honolulu is one of 50 public libraries in the islands. Natanya Friedheim/Civil Beat

Today, most public libraries in urban centers have outreach program managers, she said, a trend that’s becoming increasingly popular even in less-populated areas.

“It is not new,” Todaro said. “What is new is the urgency of it and the seriousness of it and the number of people who can benefit from it.”

As librarians and clerks increasingly find themselves helping patrons create resumes, find jobs online and even fill out public housing applications, the Hawaii State Public Library System is asking for help from the Legislature.

“We don’t judge anyone as they come in. That’s the beauty of a library. That’s the way it should be.” — Stacey Aldrich, state librarian

The system is seeking $146,556 over fiscal years 2018 and 2019 to hire a manager who would be responsible for training library staff statewide and creating partnerships with social service agencies.

Patrons who stand to benefit include the homeless, the unemployed and those with substance abuse and/or mental health issues.

In reviewing the library system’s budget request, Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Jill Tokuda recommended the state library system reimagine existing vacancies rather than fund an entirely new position.

That won’t work, said Aldrich, adding her lean staff has already reviewed all existing positions with that in mind.

Last year the Big Island’s Pahala Public and School Library closed for 42 days due to lack of staffing.

Librarians and staff are scrambling to find solutions to help the growing number of patrons who require alternative services, even though they aren’t properly trained in social work.  

“It’s frustrating for the branches,” Aldrich said, “because we’re looking for support.”

‘Hit And Miss’ Social Services

Librarians and clerks weren’t hired to provide social services, nor have they been trained to do so. As a result, staff at each branch make it up as they go.

This work is “hit and miss,” said Keith Fujio, special assistant to the state librarian.

The position requested in this year’s budget, referred to as an outreach services and programming manager, would be tasked with visiting all branches to assess their needs. The manager would also identify social service agencies in each community willing to work with the library.

Following assessments, the manager would create training opportunities for library staff, and establish partnerships between local agencies and libraries.

“Libraries are a touch point for people to get information and basic resources.” — Scott Morishige, state homeless coordinator

“It is not something that is focused on at this point, that’s why the position is important,” said the Hilo Public Library’s Moore.

Informal partnerships between libraries and social service agencies already exist. They consist mostly of librarians referring patrons to other agencies, or librarians advertising resources or events on bulletin boards around the library.

Moore would like to see medical aid offered at her library. Her staff already hands out bandages to patrons with open wounds.

A number of public libraries across the country offer medical services to patrons free of charge, Todaro said.

She gave the example of a partnership between a medical service agency and a public library in California. The agency parks a truck in the library’s parking lot and offers services, including physical exams and flu shots, to patrons.

Lack of access to basic medical care is a major issue for Hawaii’s homeless. Untreated wounds that fester can lead to emergency room visits, and end up costing taxpayers in the long run.

Libraries In ‘Defense Mode’

Welcoming patrons who have mental illness and substance abuse issues has its risks.

“Sometimes people get irate,” said Fujio, who has worked in the state’s public library system for over two decades.

The frequency of incidents of patrons acting out is increasing, Fujio said.

Last year the Legislature appropriated funds to put security guards in all of the state’s public libraries during open hours. An additional $370,727 was allocated for security in fiscal year 2017.

Even with security on the premises, librarians are often the ones to “de-escalate the situation” when a patron has an episode, said Stacie Kaneshige, who oversees day-to-day operations at the libraries.

A lot of time people just need human connection or encouragement.” — Leah Esguerra, library social worker in San Francisco  

It’s a stressful job and a skill not typically taught in library science courses.

Dealing with people “blowing up” also causes a psychological stress on librarians, Aldrich said. She wants to provide staff with training on not taking the stress of work home with them.

“Most librarians are not trained to deal with mental health issues,” she said. “Not that we want to become social workers, it’s just that we need to have the skills to appropriately deal with someone who’s having an episode.”

The lack of appropriate training and support has left library staff in “defense mode,” Aldrich says. Maintaining health and safety standards is already a challenge.

Some patrons use the bathroom sinks to shower themselves. Staff members sometimes find major cleanup tasks in the restrooms or on the grounds, including disposing of used needles.

Partnerships are already taking shape to address some of these issues.

The CHOW Project, a local nonprofit that offers a needle-exchange program, has provided each branch with needle containers that the organization collects and disposes of when they are full.

‘A Community Living Room’

Libraries are prime locations to utilize in the state’s effort to aid the homeless population, which included approximately 7,921 people as of January 2016.

Hawaii’s public libraries serve more than 990,000 patrons each year. The state library system doesn’t track the housing status of its patrons.

Addressing poverty issues at libraries has proved a successful strategy in other states, in part because they are spaces where people with a variety of needs find refuge.

“It’s considered a community living room,” said Leah Esguerra, a social worker at the San Francisco Public Library.

Esguerra’s work with with the library started in 2009. She’s now one of seven members of the library’s social service team, which has expanded from the main branch to other branches. Five of the seven employees are formerly homeless, and many former employees have gone on to find employment elsewhere.

The team refers those in need to resources, including psychiatric services, food stamps and temporary shelters.

These days, she gets calls from libraries around the U.S. and abroad requesting advice on how to integrate social services into library settings.

Sometimes people come to the library seeking Esguerra’s services. Other times, she approaches regular patrons who appear to need help.

A lot of time people just need human connection or encouragement,” she said.  

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