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How Toronto's Libraries Help The Homeless

When we think of places where homeless people hang out during the day, our thoughts likely turn to park benches and downtown sidewalks.

But the reality is that our public libraries, especially those in hard-pressed neighbourhoods in Toronto, have become the place to go for growing numbers of homeless men and women seeking refugee from the heat, cold, snow and rain — or the hard life on the streets.

Emilio Estevez took to the Toronto Reference Library to promote his new film, The Public.

Indeed, many Toronto Public Library branches have seen a steady increase in recent years in the number of homeless people using their facilities. At some downtown Toronto branches, librarians interact with as many homeless people as do workers at homeless shelters.

It’s obvious why: libraries are warm, safe, don’t cost anything to enter, offer free computers and internet, and you can stay for hours as long as you’re not creating a disturbance.

Now, in a move that responds to the rise in homeless people using their branches, the Toronto Public Library has hired its first full-time social worker to deal with homelessness.

It’s a bold move that signals the importance the Toronto library is placing on offering programs for the homeless and in training its entire staff to deal better with the needs of the homeless, such as helping them to find emergency shelter, food banks and clothing. If successful, it should be copied by big-city libraries across Canada.

The social worker will also help raise awareness among local branch librarians on how to deal respectfully with vulnerable people who may suffer from mental health issues and addiction, as well as homelessness.

“We are trying to be proactive,” says Aly Velji, manager of adult literacy services for the Toronto Public Library. “We have a lot of vulnerable clients who use our spaces and so we are looking how to better serve their needs,”

The issue of how libraries respond to homeless people gained widespread attention during the Toronto International Film Festival with the showing of The Public, a film by Emilio Estevez that covers a two-day period when homeless patrons occupy the main Cincinnati library during a severe winter cold snap.

Estevez spoke last week at a special screening of the film hosted by the Toronto Library Foundation, which raises millions of dollars for the library system each year through its generous donors.

That same day, Ryan Dowd, the executive director of a homeless shelter in the Chicago area who has written a book, The Librarian’s Guide to Homeless, conducted a training session for Toronto library employees on how to how to work with homeless patrons.

Dowd’s training focuses on using empathy to address issues such as body odour, those who sleep in the library and on how to interact with people with mental illnesses. His training is designed to help librarians enforce rules, but with respect.

Although hiring a social worker dedicated to the homeless is unique, helping the homeless isn’t new for the Toronto library or other libraries across the country.

In Toronto, a Bookmobile Shelter Outreach program, which visits family shelters, has engaged with close to 500 shelter residents in the past three years. The library has also embedded librarians in agencies serving vulnerable or marginalized persons across the city, such as the Toronto South and Toronto East detention centres.

Also, starting this fall, a librarian will serve two city-run homeless shelters. Vickery Bowles, the Toronto chief librarian, says the move is aimed at shifting librarians out of their traditional role in library buildings and directly into communities where they work alongside social agency staff.

Such moves may upset non-homeless patrons who are disturbed when they see the homeless lingering in their local branch. But the Toronto library is taking the right step in trying to deal with the issues facing the vulnerable people who pass through their doors every day.

More library systems should follow in Toronto’s footsteps and look at ways to help their homeless patrons, such as offering special programs and raising employee awareness of how take an empathetic approach to homeless people in their branches.

As Estevez said during his appearance at the Toronto Reference Library, “We’ve got to do something. We’ve got to try.”

When you donate to Haven Toronto, you support a place where elder men who are homeless can stay warm, stay safe, and even read a book in our own library.





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