On most days of the week, Alvin Stewart can be found perusing the movies section at the central branch of the Vancouver Public Library (VPL), carefully inspecting the DVD selection.
Stewart loves books, too, but movies are his passion. It’s a short walk to the downtown Vancouver library from East Hastings Street, where he lives in a low-income building, and he tries to arrive right when the library opens.
“I do like coming here early, just in case they have a new selection of quick views up on the shelf,” he said.
Stewart didn’t find anything that day, but he shrugged it off because he can just renew the movies he had borrowed previously. For Stewart — as it can be for many patrons — a public library is a barrier-free place for him to access the things he loves.
In Vancouver and across North America, urban libraries are more than a place to borrow movies and books. For people with no fixed address or in vulnerable housing, libraries are places to seek shelter, to stay in touch with loved ones and even lay their heads down for a short rest.
A hub for at-risk youth
Libraries are also go-to places for some of Vancouver’s at-risk and homeless youth.
“We’re one of the very few free spaces left for youth in the city,” said D’Arcy Stainton, a librarian with VPL’s Teen Services. “Most spaces you have to go and buy a cup of coffee or spend money, so we do get a lot of teens at the library in our low-income neighborhoods.”
At Britannia Library, youth can often be seen at the small art gallery by the entrance curled up with a book, charging their phones or dozing. Like other patrons, teenagers also use the space to check out books, hang out with friends and use the free internet to surf the web or connect with family. But sometimes, young people arrive at Britannia hungry and desperate. They turn to the library when they think they have nowhere else to go, said children’s librarian Natalie Patel.
“The other day I came in, and there was a boy sleeping underneath the foyer display case,” she recalled. She knew he needed a safe space to rest. “I was on my way to work, and I saw him and I recognized him, so I was able to call him by name, and he opened his eyes, [and I said], ‘The library is open in five minutes, you can come in and rest in there.’ He did.”
San Francisco’s library social worker
The fact that public libraries tend to be places for the low-income to gather is not a new phenomenon. San Francisco Public Library’s main downtown branch has long been a hub for patrons who are homeless or suffering from substance abuse or mental health issues.
In 2008, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the U.S. to hire a full-time social worker, Leah Esguerra, to connect with patrons who had started to view the library as a de facto homeless shelter. Other libraries across the U.S. followed suit, with social workers, nurses and outreach workers hired to work in public libraries in Salt Lake City, Tulsa and Sacramento.
“A lot of them do use the library to read and use the resources here, but given that it is also a nice place and anyone is welcome, homeless folks also come here to do other things that aren’t really library-related, such as taking a bath in the bathroom or sleeping here,” Esguerra said.
She was hired to connect patrons to resources such as permanent housing and mental health services. She also provides information about community resources such as places to find free or low-cost meals, and clothing or places to take naps and showers.
Esguerra said the library viewed her role as so essential that she now also trains and supervises several formerly homeless patrons who receive a stipend to do outreach work. Each day, she and the outreach workers walk the library’s seven floors to connect with patrons in vulnerable situations.
“A lot of times they would nicely just say they’re not interested, but that way, at least we’re able to break the barrier for them to start to know us,” she said. “And then they start to trust us. Eventually down the line, once they have a situation where they become more interested, [then they’re] ready to accept help.”
Community engagement closer to home
Both Vancouver and Victoria have embraced the idea that a public library can play an important social role in the lives of vulnerable citizens. Beth Davies, manager of neighborhood services with Vancouver Public Library, said staff members often visit food banks or detox centers to see what types of library programs or services people might like. That type of community engagement recently led the Vancouver Public Library to introduce a new kind of library card that allows people with no permanent address to access all of the city’s branches.
“We find an increasing number of people are coming to the library with their own devices — whether that’s a laptop or smartphone — but they don’t have access to the internet in most places, and they’re not able to afford to take it to a café and be able to do it, so our wireless use is really high,” said Davies. “I think that was something we found surprising because we assumed people may not have computers or devices.”
Greater Victoria Public Library also sees similar scenarios. Though library staff can never know what a patron’s circumstances are, Core District Doordinator Judy Moore said staff can often discern whether someone walking through the door may be without a permanent home.
“We have individuals who come into the public library who are there literally from the time our door’s opened at 9 a.m. to closing at 9 p.m.,” she said. “They bring with them sometimes their lunches, they move from area to area, reading newspapers and books and using computer technology, partaking in library programs.”
Moore said the downtown Victoria branch started seeing more homeless patrons around the 1980s, roughly around the same time when B.C.’s health care model moved away from institutionalization in favor of community-based care. As a result, the role of the public library began to evolve, she said.
“I think what has changed is that there is recognition in libraries that we are a part of a broader solution in terms of community support for people who are homeless,” she said.
For example, the library partners with the nonprofit Ready To Rent BC, a housing literacy program aimed at educating people about their rights as renters, the rights of landlords and how to find, budget for, secure and maintain a rental home. Though the library does not directly deliver the program, it helps Ready to Rent publicize events and offers space to host information sessions in acknowledgement of the crucial role housing plays in people’s lives. “For a person to become employed, to overcome their homelessness,” Moore said, “they really need to have good accommodation.”
‘You are somebody who has value’
Having the library be a gathering space for people from all walks of life isn’t without its challenges. Sometimes flare-ups occur, and staff members are trained in de-escalation techniques to deal with it, Moore said. Beth Davies, with VPL, also said staff members take courses in violence prevention and mental health.
At Britannia Library, Natalie Patel said there have been times when patrons are in crisis, and a library worker needs to call for help.
“There was a young girl in here one day who couldn’t get up,” she recalls. “She was totally catatonic and… we ended up calling an on-site worker who deals with mental health and addictions, and she came in and sat with her and tried to talk to her. And then we ended up calling 911 and this worker stayed with her and went with her to the hospital.”
Such occasions arise, but Patel said for the most part, what the young patrons seek is compassion, whether it’s in the form of a juice box or a granola bar or simply a smile.
“I think a large part of what we do — besides providing a safe place for them to be, a place for them to rest their heads, a place for them to communicate with their families, to be entertained by the books, things like that — is just to acknowledge that they’re valuable people, and to know their names, to say ‘Hi, how are you doing?’, to make eye contact, to smile,” she said.
“In that way, [we] say you are somebody who has value, even if you don’t have a place to lay your head at night.”