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Pilot program at Vancouver Community Library a bridge to social services

Having social workers in downtown library has benefits for city of Vancouver, homeless

By , Columbian Social Services, Demographics, Faith, and
, Columbian Education Reporter
Published: August 21, 2019, 6:00am
3 Photos
Jack Crowley of Battle Ground speaks with Community Services Northwest case manager Jamie Spinelli at the Vancouver Community Library. Spinelli recently helped Crowley find an apartment after he had been homeless for many years. (Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian)
Jack Crowley of Battle Ground speaks with Community Services Northwest case manager Jamie Spinelli at the Vancouver Community Library. Spinelli recently helped Crowley find an apartment after he had been homeless for many years. (Zach Wilkinson/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Jack Crowley used to hang out at the Vancouver Community Library every day. The 70-year-old was homeless for 34 years, and the downtown library provided a safe, quiet place out of the elements.

But in March, that changed when he got a one-bedroom apartment in Battle Ground.

It all started with conversations he had with a social worker at the library.

“I got to thinking I’m getting up in years and I need to get inside,” Crowley said. “These folks are real good people. They helped me.”

Fort Vancouver Regional Libraries’ flagship has long been more than a place to find the latest best-selling novels or to use a computer. Since November, the downtown branch has also piloted a program that regularly puts social workers in the library, helping guide people like Crowley to housing and other resources.

Initial numbers show those efforts are bearing fruit. Crowley is among 19 homeless library visitors that Community Services Northwest case manager Jamie Spinelli helped house between November and June. Police, medical and other emergency services calls to the downtown location are down since November.

“It’s more than just books,” said Kelly Lamm, branch manager of the Vancouver Community Library. “It’s coming and being a member of a community, but also a bridge to social services.”

Declining calls

Emergency service providers responded to 89 calls to the downtown library between the beginning of November, when social service providers began meeting clients at the library, and the end of July, according to call records obtained from the Clark Regional Emergency Services Agency.

That’s down from 125 calls – 28.8 percent – in the same time period a year prior.

Police responded to 55 of the calls from November through July, down from 81 in the previous year — a decline of 32.1 percent. Ambulance services provider American Medical Response responded to 16 calls, down from 23 the year prior, a 30 percent decrease.

Certainly not all emergency services calls are connected to incidents that arise from homeless people using the library. Emergency providers are most commonly responding to incidents like a person experiencing chest pain or someone with suicidal ideation.

But library workers have focused on making the branch welcoming to everyone, which includes appropriately responding to homeless visitors with support rather than calls to the police. They say their efforts have made a difference.

Kim Kapp, spokeswoman for the Vancouver Police Department, said the department has provided de-escalation training to library staff.

“It was really about looking for ways for their staff to feel like they could actually engage with some of these folks,” Kapp said.

Library staff have also received Mental Health First Aid training as well as training from Ryan Dowd, who wrote “The Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness.”

Spinelli, the case manager, works with homeless library patrons on Tuesdays as part of the social service pilot program that began in November. She said staff and security have been able to watch her de-escalate people – which could prevent a situation from escalating to a 911 call.

“To be able to watch someone very calmly just talk to someone and go outside and smoke a cigarette and reason with somebody, you say, ‘OK, yeah. It’s not going to be that bad,’ ” Spinelli said.

Branch supervisor Dre de Leon, who helped launch the social worker pilot, said it’s useful for library staff to have a resource they can refer people to.

Staff know they can call or text Spinelli if there’s an emergent situation. Or, they can fill out a referral card that’s handed to Spinelli the next time she’s in the library.

“Having a tool, being able to offer something real, being able to have an interaction and develop a relationship with someone that’s based on resources and solutions rather than frustration, that’s powerful,” de Leon said.

Spinelli said there’s a clear difference between what the library was like for people experiencing homelessness two years ago and what it’s like now.

“To me, I just see the folks that I work with, whether they’re accessing help here or not, I’ve seen them walk through this space and you can see that they feel comfortable here,” Spinelli said. “They’re not hiding. … They’re comfortable talking with security guards, and they’re comfortable talking with staff here, and they feel welcome.”

If people can occupy a space without being bothered, the thinking goes, their anxiety won’t be so heightened and they won’t feel they need to protect themselves. That in turn may prevent a confrontation.

“While they’re not like putting it on blast, they’re also not trying real hard to hide the fact that they’re unhoused,” Spinelli said. “The tone here has said, ‘It’s no big deal, because we provide a thing for that now.’ It’s no longer something you have to hide because you think that you’re going to be treated differently because of it.”

Between November and June, she worked with 53 people who hadn’t previously connected to housing or stabilization services in a meaningful way. About half went on to complete housing assessments.

Adam Kravitz, director of homeless advocacy group Outsiders Inn, said the library has been a critical partner in supporting people experiencing homelessness. He noted that the increased social services, ongoing training and events like the 2017 art show for unhoused artists prove the library district is going “above and beyond” to serve the community.

“Having a place where you can go and hang out and not be judged is the ultimate provider of hope,” Kravitz said.

Navigation Center helps

Vancouver’s new Navigation Center, the day center for homeless people, has also helped relieve pressure on the downtown library, Lamm said. If people need services the library can’t provide, the staff can point them in the direction of that facility.

“I feel like we’re not encountering some of our older regulars,” Lamm said. “They might be going to the day center.”

Jillian Delaiden, who oversees the Navigation Center, said some people visit both, while some are more likely to hang out at one over the other.

Still, the library doesn’t offer showers, laundry or mail services or allow pets, so people have to find that elsewhere. The Navigation Center provides those services and more in one central space on Grand Boulevard, just south of Fourth Plain.

Spinelli agreed that some people who frequent the library also go to the Navigation Center, but said there wasn’t a big shift. She described the center as a “very low-barrier place.”

“And that is just not something that everyone is comfortable with. So, those who are not tend to be more comfortable here,” Spinelli said of the downtown library.

Crowley, the man who received help finding housing at the library, didn’t feel ready to go inside at first. He said his homelessness got to a point where he didn’t care if he lived or died. Through his conversations with Spinelli at the library, he warmed to the idea of an apartment.

He still visits the downtown branch to check out movies, but it’s less often than before.

“I’ve lived in this library almost two years,” Crowley said. “This is my library.”

Crowley said he’s liking his apartment, which he keeps tidy, and he has gained weight since going inside. Someday he would like to get a place with a garage; he likes to make leather goods and furniture. He made the wooden cane he uses to get around.

These days he’s settling into his home and began helping a young homeless man in Battle Ground who’s living out of his car by offering food and supplies.

“You’re an outreach worker, Jack,” Spinelli told him with a laugh. “That’s exactly what I do.”

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