It is no secret that the Central Library has become sort of a safe haven for members of the local homeless population. Now, library officials are looking to better serve these patrons.
A luncheon was held late last week to formally announce new outreach services that will be implemented with a three-year federal Library Outreach & Innovative Services Grant.
The library wants to become a more valued resource for local homeless men and women by connecting them with the resources and services that could help change or improve their lives.
The specifics of the program are being hashed out by library officials and a steering committee made up of local representatives who are exceedingly familiar with the homeless problem, people like Dan Parsons, director of the Winston-Salem Rescue Mission, a shelter and substance abuse recovery program for men.
“Although we have programs that will help them, a lot of them do not come into the Rescue Mission. They decide they need to go to the library for whatever reason, and this is a good opportunity for them and for us to help them increase their knowledge of computers. Really the sky’s the limit of what we can accomplish with this grant,” said Parsons.
Steering Committee member Sonjia Kurosky, executive director of Samaritan Ministries, said the library has a unique ability to reach the population on a daily basis.
“I think it’s a really great idea that sometimes we have to meet people where they are, and if they’re homeless and they’re at the library, let’s bring some services to them,” said Kurosky, whose agency runs a soup kitchen and men’s shelter.
Assistant Library Director Elizabeth Skinner, who oversees the new program, said that since the library is already an unofficial “de facto day shelter” – a place where homeless men and women go not only to read and use computers, but also to rest and escape the elements on extremely hot or cold days – the agency is perfectly positioned to help. The grant, which was awarded through the state library, will be used to launch a multitude of programs. Some will address health and wellness and others will focus on education, training and job searching.
“We are seen by the state library as a pilot program for other libraries across the state,” said Skinner. “Hopefully, we’ll come up with some best practices that other libraries can use in serving the homeless and working with the homeless.”
As part of the new programs, Jose Perez Jr. has been hired, in conjunction with the Partnership for a Drug Free North Carolina, as a peer support specialist. His job is to work one-on-one with the library’s homeless patrons and direct them to services that will benefit them.
It was only Perez’s second day in the position when he attended last Thursday’s luncheon. He said he’d worked with seven homeless people that morning alone.
“People may just be sitting at the computer and not be aware of what’s being offered to them, not just in the library but in the city of Winston-Salem,” said Perez.
A Samaritan Ministries staff counselor, Perez said that many in the local homeless community are familiar and comfortable with him. Perez also can relate to them. He was homeless nine years ago. He said that he is confident that he can help others break the cycle of homelessness.
The grant also funds homeless sensitivity training for library staff. The session was held during the library’s annual training session on Friday by Katie Volk, the director of t3, a Massachusetts agency that conducts such training across the nation.
Volk, who also spoke at the luncheon, said that often those experiencing homelessness become disconnected from society and often go months or years without anyone even making eye contact with them. She said the library is a great place to engage them.
“(Libraries) provide experiences of inclusion to counterbalance what people experience on the street,” said Volk.
Forsyth County Library Director Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin the said library is ready to stand at the forefront of an issue that can help shape the future of the broader community.
“I’m just really happy to let everyone know that we are about more than books; we have a love and concern about the community,” she said.