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News / Clark County News

Pilot program for homeless places social worker at Vancouver library weekly

By Patty Hastings, Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith
Published: December 28, 2018, 6:00am
4 Photos
Jack Crowley, left, talks with Jamie Spinelli, center, a case manager with Community Services Northwest, at the Vancouver Community Library on Dec. 11. As part of a new pilot project, Spinelli works in the library every Tuesday morning to help connect homeless people, like Crowley, with resources. “The library staff here are excellent, but they’re also not social workers,” Spinelli said.
Jack Crowley, left, talks with Jamie Spinelli, center, a case manager with Community Services Northwest, at the Vancouver Community Library on Dec. 11. As part of a new pilot project, Spinelli works in the library every Tuesday morning to help connect homeless people, like Crowley, with resources. “The library staff here are excellent, but they’re also not social workers,” Spinelli said. Photos by Alisha Jucevic/The Columbian Photo Gallery

Jamie Spinelli’s job as a case manager for Community Services Northwest takes her to parks, homeless shelters, the jail and street encampments across the community.

“We just go wherever they are,” she said, “and there’s a lot at the library.”

As part of a pilot project that launched last month, Spinelli began spending her Tuesday mornings at the downtown Vancouver Community Library. She helps people there navigate resources and services so they know where to find food and shelter, and how to sign up for housing assistance.

“It just makes sense to come in here one day a week for a couple of hours. If there’s anybody who wants to meet with me, they can,” Spinelli said. “I’ve never wanted to intrude upon someone’s library time. They have a right to that just like anyone without being interrupted, but I also want to be available as much as possible.”

Scott Phillips didn’t know all the housing options available to him. The 59-year-old thought if he accepted housing assistance, he had to live at Lincoln Place. Not the case, Spinelli explained, when they talked at the library last month.

“I took the ball and ran with it from there,” Phillips said on a recent Tuesday. He was hanging out on the fourth floor of the library and chatting with Spinelli about potential rental options.

Since his initial conversation with Spinelli, Phillips completed a housing assessment, qualified for a housing program and began working with WorkSource to get a job. He said he used to work in the fine dining industry in Nevada but looks to get recertified in operating forklifts and get a job in a warehouse.

“I’ve never wanted to be homeless,” Phillips said. “Sometimes, things just pull the rug out from under you and you lose everything.”

Spinelli said she’d previously worked with Phillips outside and given him supplies, but he had never asked for help with housing. The library is a different setting, though. It’s a calm, warm space to talk out of the elements.

Jack Crowley, 69, who’s known as “old man Jack,” went inside the library to get out of the cold and rain. He asked Spinelli how long it would take for him to get into housing.

“We could get you in probably pretty quickly,” she said.

“Do they have cable in those places?” he asked.

Crowley, who’s been homeless for 34 years, said Spinelli is helping him learn about resources and she’s given him hope. In the past, he said, he’s been too hardheaded when people tried to help.

“It’s time to get off the streets,” he said, adding that sleeping on the concrete “will suck the life right out of you.”

Responding to change

Spinelli didn’t previously visit the library often unless she got a referral from a library employee or was looking for a client who frequented the library.

Branch Supervisor Dre de Leon and Spinelli met at the city-led homeless ideas group, which meets monthly at Vancouver City Hall. They discussed how to help the library’s growing number of patrons experiencing homelessness.

“A good library is a library that notices changes in the community and responds to those,” de Leon said. “Another thing a good library does is meet people where they’re at.”

She did some research on other libraries using social workers in some capacity such as libraries in San Jose, Calif., Baltimore and Portland. The idea is not new.

Multnomah County (Ore.) Library’s “crisis worker” position began in January 2016. In the first year, the two people who share the position made more than 1,000 contacts.

“It’s been tremendously helpful not just for the people who need help but also our library staff,” said library spokesman Shawn Cunningham. “Having someone with that professional discipline and background is helpful.”

The crisis workers, who are contracted through Cascadia Behavioral Healthcare, spend most of their time at downtown Portland’s Central Library, and they consult other branches when situations arise. They’ve also been able to counsel library staff so they can refer people to basic services such as food, mental health, housing, health care and employment.

They can also prevent someone from getting kicked out of the library. If somebody, for instance, wasn’t wearing shoes, library staff would normally ask them to leave. But, the crisis workers have shoes to give out, “which is just a much more straightforward way to help someone,” Cunningham said.

Though Vancouver Community Library’s outreach effort is new, de Leon has already noticed people are more comfortable approaching library staff because they know there’s someone who can help. Staff can radio Spinelli if they come across someone seeking her assistance.

“It’s allowing us to really fulfill our role as an institution by providing access to resources to people regardless of socioeconomic status,” de Leon said.

The library, after all, is a place of knowledge and learning, a place to get questions answered. How do I get into shelter? How can I find a cheap apartment?

“If you don’t have a home and you don’t have a computer and you don’t have a phone, you go to the library,” Spinelli said. “Honestly, what better place? People come here for information. It just makes sense.”

On the first Monday of every month, Spinelli is joined by Council for the Homeless employee Amanda Clark, who does housing assessments.

‘A no-brainer’

Kate Budd, the council’s executive director, said people in need of housing may not go through the regular channels, so being able to work with them at the library is a welcome resource.

“It gave us another place to go to work to engage with people,” Budd said.

She said a number of people are particularly comfortable at the downtown library and may not venture to other resources.

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The two-month pilot project began Nov. 5, before the Vancouver Navigation Center opened, which signaled the closure of the day center at Friends of the Carpenter in west Vancouver. More people are hanging out at the downtown library because the day center is gone, Spinelli said.

“It’s a no-brainer to have this in the library,” she said.

Spinelli started by hanging out on the building’s main floor. She was approached by people who recognized her from her street outreach work and wondered what she was doing in the library — and why she was wearing regular clothes, rather than waterproof pants and a rain jacket. Word spread that she’s available at the library.

The role doesn’t add any hours to Spinelli’s workweek. It just means between 9 and 11 a.m. every Tuesday, she’s stationed among the stacks.

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Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith