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It’s not an uncommon experience to be unstably housed in this country. From Brooklyn to San Francisco, communities often turn to public libraries for valuable information, social services and for a safe and comfortable place to be. This episode, we listen to stories of patrons experiencing homelessness, and ask how the library could be better when it comes to creating a sense of home for everyone.

Want to read more about the topics brought up in this episode? Check out the following links:

  • Click here for a link to Nick Higgins's BookMatch list curated especially for this episode.
  • Looking for a home? Learn about social services at BPL, or find a library at your shelter
  • Find out more about Breaking Ground's housing services.
  • Are you a social work student? Learn about doing your internship at a public library.
  • Listen to "Outpost Redux," a podcast created by residents of Brooklyn shelters and Brooklyn Public Library.
  • Learn about BPL's Incubator program, which empowers staff to create services and programs for their communities.
  • Watch a short documentary about BPL librarian Donald Peebles, created by Alice Obar.
  • Read an NPR story about social workers at public libraries, featuring San Francisco Public Library.

Episode Transcript

Donald Peebles My name is Donald Peebles. I’m the adult librarian at East Flatbush slash Saratoga libraries. Many of the patrons are from shelters. Some of them are already outside waiting either in front of the building or across the street—waiting to come in. I greet everyone as they come in.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Donald Peebles works at Brooklyn Public Library, first in East Flatbush, and now in Bed-Stuy. Donald is in a unique position, because he’s not only familiar with the needs of patrons experiencing homelessness from the library’s perspective, but he also knows first hand what it’s like to live in New York City without a place to call home.

Donald Peebles I became homeless two weeks before graduating from Pratt with my second masters. It's an accomplishment and I am very proud of that... yeah, the homeless part is kind of like, how did I get here? I was staying with a friend in her living room for a year. It was originally three months, but it ended up being a year and I know at that time, it was time for me to go. I wore out my welcome.

Adwoa Adusei While Donald was living in shelters, he continued looking for a job as a librarian. And during the day, when the shelters closed, Donald spent a good amount of time using the public library… as a patron. He read books, used the computers—he even started volunteering at a public library.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Meanwhile, living in a shelter at night was stressful for Donald.

Donald Peebles The shelter experience was like being in the military. The correctional officers, the case workers, the staff were just talking down to people, yelling at everyone, putting everyone into a box, not taking into consideration everyone’s individual reasons of becoming homeless in the first place.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Every evening, when Donald went back to the shelter, the officers would ask him to but his belongings in a bin. In order to deal with what he felt was a dehumanizing environment, Donald would make a point to put his library books in the bin with his other belongings, to show that he was an educated person.

Donald Peebles I had to let the correctional officers know that they weren’t going to talk to me any old kind of a way. I’m letting them know that I am literate. I can comprehend, and I will write a letter in a second.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Books were Donald’s defense mechanism, and his refuge. And after a few months, his dogged job searching paid off.

Donald Peebles After getting out of the shelter and living in the Link program transitional housing in East New York, I was hired by BPL. I always wanted to do something to give back to something relating to homelessness.

Adwoa Adusei As a librarian in East Flatbush, in order to better serve patrons living in shelters or unstable housing, Donald created a program for them to find out about social services, and above all, to help them build self-confidence in a system that tends to run you down. He called his program, “Shine On Me.” 

Librarian Donald Peebles, featured in a short documentary by Alice Obar and produced during the BRIC Documentary Intensive.
(Still image from Alice Obar's "Books are My Weapon")

Donald Peebles I got the title from the theme song for the sitcom “Amen”. It was sung by gospel singer Vanessa Bell Armstrong.

[MUSIC: "Shine On Me"]

Donald Peebles I wanted to make it different from other programs. Many programs dealing with homeless people is… 'Oh, just do a job search, learn how to dress, get your job and then that's it. So when you get the job, we don’t have to see you.' I wanted to put the self esteem element into it, which made it different, because homeless people are dehumanized even by, I think, agencies and institutions that mean well.

Shakina It was kind of like I just happened to walk in and I seen these group of people sitting there and I was like, 'Oh, I’m sorry.' I didn’t mean to interject. They were like, 'No, no, come in, come in.' And I’m like, 'Okay…' 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This is Shakina, a regular patron at Brooklyn Public Library. She was one of the attendees of “Shine On Me,” and remembers feeling welcomed by from the very beginning of Donald’s program.

Adwoa Adusei Shakina was at the time living without stable housing. She has a son who had just finished elementary school. And, unfortunately, the stress of homelessness was something Shakina had experienced for a while. When her son was one, Shakina lost her job, and then her apartment. She has had to move around, working part-time jobs and temp jobs. Through it all, the library was a constant for Shakina and her son.

Shakina A lot of these kids are at home, they’re stressed out, they don’t have enough food in the house. They have to share a room with four or five, six other kids. They come to the library, the library gives summer lunch. Sometimes they give snacks for their programs. They’ll call the kid’s parents for them: 'Listen, I just wanted to let you know they're here, they made it here safe. The program is over now, we’re going to send them back home.' They don’t have to do that, it’s not a part of their job. Now it’s like, the library is concerned about your well being. They want to make sure that you’re okay. This is real facts, this is real, true stories. Like, I’ve gone through it and I’ve seen it happen to other people. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras I’m Krissa Corbett Cavouras.

Adwoa Adusei And I’m Adwoa Adusei. You’re listening to Borrowed. Stories that start at the library. Today, we’re getting home.

[MUSIC]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras One of the unfortunate realities in New York City today is that there aren’t many places to be if you’re experiencing homelessness. And, it’s not an uncommon experience to be without a home in the city. According to a recent report, there are nearly 60,000 people living in the shelter system in New York City, over half of whom are families with children. And this is an issue that’s close to home for us. As of July 2018, the neighborhood with the highest rates of families entering shelters is East New York, in Brooklyn.

Adwoa Adusei The library is a public space, open most days of the week for most working hours. It’s a valuable resource for the many people without stable housing, something Shakina pointed out.

Shakina For anyone that has to live somewhere where you know you don’t have peace, whether it’s on your mother’s couch or your grandmother’s attic or whatever the situation is...  I know if I get out of this house and go to this library, nobody wants anything from me. I’m going to come here, enjoy my magazine, enjoy my book.

Patrons working and reading at Brooklyn's Central Library.
(Gregg Richards, Brooklyn Public Library)

Krissa Corbett Cavouras It’s true. Anyone can come into the library and spend time here. We’re not going to bother you. But there are times when library staff do take a more active role.

Matthew Irizarry There's nothing wrong with asking someone if they need help. That's actually the main question we ask as staff all day when people walk through the door.

Adwoa Adusei This is Matthew Irizarry.

Matthew Irizarry Twenty-two year employee at Brooklyn Public Library. I’ve worked at many branches, probably all of them.

Adwoa Adusei Matthew interacts with people all day in his role as a library circulation supervisor. A few years ago, he began to notice one particular patron who was in the library almost every day.

Matthew Irizarry ... and many of our patrons would complain about the unpleasant smell coming from this gentleman. And instead of us telling him to leave, we said, you know what, let’s see if there are other alternatives so we can help this guy out.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Because libraries are public spaces, it means everyone is welcome to come in. That mix of people makes us dynamic and democratic places. But it can also create tension. So, in this particular situation, Matthew decided to have a conversation with the patron.

Matthew Irizarry It’s always good to talk to people to see exactly what their needs are, because they could actually be living somewhere and they just have issues in their home. So, 'do you need help with anything?' could be the first question you ask the person. And his response was: 'No, I don’t.'

Adwoa Adusei Though the patron was initially hesitant, he and Matthew developed a relationship. Over a series of conversations, Matthew was able to discover that this patron was indeed living on the street. He had been put on disability from his construction job and hadn’t had a place to call home for more than a decade.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So Matthew reached out to Breaking Ground, an organization that partners with the library to provide social services to people experiencing homelessness. 

Matthew Irizarry So, I called breaking ground and they got the assistant Marisol to come down. She sat down with him and at first there was some resentment, and I explained to him, 'Please, try not to scream at her like that. Just talk regular and she’s going to help you.'

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Breaking Ground staff continued to meet with the patron at the library to try and advance his case. A few months later, Matthew was walking in his own neighborhood…

Matthew Irizarry ... and one day I happened to bump into him on the street next to where I live. And I see him and he's like, 'Hey, man, I finally got my place. Thank you very much.' I was like, wow, I cant believe this. And I was just so happy to hear that because he’s been coming to our library for thirty years. He’s been there, he's seen many renovations, he's seen all of the staff come and go, and he said nobody ever talked to him. 

Adwoa Adusei Sometimes, all it takes is a conversation to get someone headed toward home.

[MUSIC]

Krissa Corbett Cavouras That’s an amazing story, and it really shows the importance of having a safe and comfortable space for people to interact. But, Adwoa, in this episode, we’re going to dig into in this episode is ways that the library could be better when it comes to welcoming and helping patrons who are experiencing homelessness.

Adwoa Adusei That is absolutely tight. It’s something that librarian Donald Peebles brought up, the fact that some public library systems have policies that seem to go against the idea that everyone actually belongs.

Donald Peebles There are still policies letting people know you really cannot come in. Even though the doors say 'Everyone is Welcome,' but it seems like when it comes to homelessness, it kind of stops right there. Because I know another system, they have signs up... You cannot bring in bags. You cannot bring in shopping carts.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Brooklyn Public Library doesn’t have those signs up, but it does have a policy on public behavior in the library that’s posted on our website. One section outlines a series of “inappropriate behaviors.” These include "Sleeping on BPL premises,” the “Use of BPL restrooms for bathing, shaving, washing hair, or changing clothes,” and “Disturbing others because of offensive body odor.” These are policies that, in many ways, end up targeting people experiencing poverty or homelessness.

Eva Raison I would like to see that language change.

Adwoa Adusei That last voice is Eva Raison. She’s the director of outreach services at Brooklyn Public Library. We talked to her about the library’s policies, and the broader question that we keep returning to on Borrowed: how to make sure everyone feels welcome in the library, and at the same time maintain a level of safety and comfort for the patrons, and for the staff.

Eva Raison I think it's definitely easier, or seems easier at the outset, to have a very clear rule that can be enforced uniformly. But the reality of what happens in the branches, and the relationships that people have with patrons, and how power plays out in interactions with patrons is very different from clear enforcement.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Public librarians interact on a daily basis with people experiencing a whole range of struggles, and there can be an impulse to look for guidelines or a secret key that tells you how to handle every kind of interaction.

Adwoa Adusei But, instead of looking for one-size-fits-all policies, Eva says, it’s important to understand that every person’s situation is unique.

Eva Raison So, I think librarians and library staff treat the public with empathy, and with something I heard someone recently in an evaluation say, 'radical hospitality…' [LAUGHS] So, I think that we need to be very clear and really promote what we can do because often folks might not even know that they can ask a librarian anything from, you know, about dinosaurs to housing assistance.

Adwoa Adusei Ask us anything, from dinosaurs to housing assistance. It’s what we’re good at. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras And, in fact, it’s something librarians have been good at for a really long time. With all of the news stories about public libraries being the safety net for shrinking social services, it’s easy to forget that the overlap between social work and librarianship goes back a long time… actually all the way back to the 1870s and 80s, when public libraries were starting to be built across the country. 

Patrons take part in a senior citizen program at Brooklyn Public Library in 1953.
(Brooklyn Collection, Brooklyn Public Library)

Adwoa Adusei That's true. Those early libraries made a point to offer concerts and lectures, as well as access to bathrooms and kitchens, and programs for kids and families—a lot of the same things we still do today. So, I think it’s fair to say that offering social services at public libraries has been a thing for over a hundred years. What’s new about all this is public libraries have started to make the relationship more official. 

Leah Esguerra I'll be honest with you, I was confused. Even as a social worker, I had not heard of 'library social worker' before.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Leah Esguerra is, officially, the first social worker in the country to be employed at a public library. She was hired by San Francisco Public Library back in 2009. When she started her job, there really wasn’t a blueprint for it.

Leah Esguerra They told me that my clients are the library patrons, anyone who walks in through the library. You know, pretty much the entire San Francisco and then the staff as well.

Adwoa Adusei It was an enormous task, and especially because it's in a city with a notorious housing crisis. A recent report found San Fransisco to be the city with the third largest population of people experiencing homelessness in the county. But unlike New York, which houses 95 percent of people without a home, San Fransisco provides shelter for only about 33 percent of its homeless population. 

Krissa Corbett Cavouras So, where does the library fit in to all of this? That’s where Leah comes in.

Leah Esguerra So, within my first year here, I actually met with every department and also, you know, providing direct service work to the patrons, they are the experts on their own lives and experts on homelessness. So I had to learn a lot from them.

Adwoa Adusei Leah enlisted a team of part-time peer mentors called Health and Safety Associates, or HASAs. These were people with personal experiences of homelessness, employed by the library to connect patrons to social services. In other words, Leah called in the experts.

Charles Houston My name is Charles Houston and I currently work for the San Francisco City and County Department of Public Health. I was homeless for a while. You know, had issues, drugs and alcohol and things like that. I went from a house to an apartment to a studio to a room to the street. When I got tired of the street, which was several years, I went and sought some help. You know, can’t do it alone.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Charles got his living situation back on track, and after a while he started volunteering at the library, which turned into a job as a HASA, under Leah’s mentorship. As a HASA, Charles made the rounds in the library and approached people who looked like they might need help.

Charles Houston You know, we’d go around and see somebody sleeping and offer them some food, some support or the social services there. And if they agree, then I’d call Leah and she’d come down and do an interview.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Leah would then be able to tell if the patron qualified for different kinds of services or even housing.

Adwoa Adusei And, not only was the library a perfect place to connect people to social services… it turned out that the library was also an ideal training ground for future health workers and social workers. Leah mentored the HASAs, and many of them expressed a desire to continue on in the field.

Charles Houston She influenced me to go for a contracting position with the Department of Health. And it all happened through the library.

Adwoa Adusei It all happened through the library, says Charles. In the ten years since San Francisco Public Library first hired a social worker, Leah’s team has been about to house about 200 people. And Leah says it makes a difference for staff to see people who were once homeless now back at the library helping other patrons find housing.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Adwoa, I think it’s just amazing to hear Charles’s story. And Leah really is a leading voice in library social work. I know when they hired that position, all of us were paying attention. She told us that a big part of her day is spent on the phone, talking to other public library systems around the country about how they can also integrate social workers into their systems.

Adwoa Adusei And like we said earlier, it’s really catching on. There are now about thirty-five public libraries in the country that have a full-time social worker on staff. And it’s becoming more common for public library systems to hire social work interns.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Sarah Johnson, an academic librarian at Hunter College in Manhattan and a licensed social worker told us that there are currently about fifty social work students across the country are doing their placements in public libraries. And, here at BPL, we've just started our first round of social work interns doing their placements in our branches. 

Adwoa Adusei And in the meantime, the library will still be here — as a refuge, a home away from home, or whatever else you need it to be. Take it from Donald, the Brooklyn librarian you heard at the beginning of the episode.

Donald Peebles I look at librarianship I think for me, in a social work capacity. I think that’s where libraries are going. I have always predicted that. Libraries, when you’re going through things, the library is always there.

[MUSIC]


Adwoa Adusei Now it  wouldn't be a Borrowed episode without a BookMatch segment. Here to recommend a few books to you all is Brooklyn Public Library's Chief LIbrarian, Nick Higgins. Hi, Nick

Nick Higgins Hey, Adwoa, how are you?

Adwoa Adusei I'm well. We're so glad to have you here. We spent the last episode talking about libraries as a home away from home, and the important social services that patrons can find here. You've put together a list of books on that very topic. So, what's the first one you have for us? 

Nick Higgins I decided to choose a couple of books that just reminded me of home and what it means to try to find your place and find your home. So my first one is Jazz by Toni Morrison. I know Toni Morrison didn't write it for me, a white Midwestern kid coming to the city to find his place. But it was something that kind of oriented me to the energy, to the city, something that I could find familiar with the city as totally written in Jazz. And there's like this one passage in Jazz, and this is the city I think creating the myth of what the city is to a lot of people who are migrating to the city.

"He forgets a sun that used to slide up like the yolk of a good country egg, thick and red-orange at the bottom of the sky, and he doesn't miss it, doesn't look up to see what happened to it or to stars made irrelevant by the light of thrilling, wasteful street lamps. That kind of fascination, permanent and out of control, seizes children, young girls, men of every description, mothers, brides, and barfly women, and if they have their way and get to the City, they feel more like themselves, more like the people they always believed they were."

So that's sort of why I think Jazz is so important here as a novel of the city of New York and sort of a meditation on what it is to find a home here.

Adwoa Adusei That's awesome. Toni does have that effect on people. So what is the second book that you have for us?

Nick Higgins The second book is Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This is a story about a ... sort of written in letters by this elderly preacher, minister in Gilead, Iowa, who's writing a lot of letters to his seven year old son. He sort of has this moment where he realizes that life is entirely too precious. It's going by too quickly. It's a different kind of novel, I hadn't read something like that up to that point in my life where it was slow. It sort of forces you to sort of pay attention and look around a little bit and sort of focus on every word that this writer was putting on the page.

Adwoa Adusei Sounds very powerful. Listeners, that was Jazz by Toni Morrison and Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. We've put a list to the complete BookMatch list on our website. That list includes these titles and a few more that Nick selected specially for the episode. And you can check them all out right here at the Brooklyn Public Library. Thanks again, Nick.

Nick Higgins Thanks, Adwoa.

Adwoa Adusei And, as long as we’re recommending books on Borrowed, why not recommend another podcast?

Krissa Corbett Cavouras This one comes to us from Shanette Chapman who took part in one of BPL’s community podcasting programs called "Outpost Redux." In a series of workshops held at two different family shelters in Brooklyn, several patrons recorded and produced the first episode of their podcast ideas. 

Adwoa Adusei Shanette was one of the participants, and her experience led her to create a podcast about what it’s like to be the mother of a child with special needs.

Shanette Chapman My name is Shanette. I am the parent of an eight-year-old autistic child, and my podcast and every topic will be about special needs in the people of color community. I really want to understand and navigate and help others to figure out why we are being left out of the conversation when it comes to our children and their needs.

[MUSIC]

Shanette Chapman When I introduce myself, I introduce myself as a mom first.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras We sat down with Shanette after she’d finished two rounds of the "Outpost Redux" workshops to ask her about how she felt starting a podcast.

Shanette Chapman, a participant in BPL's "Outpost Redux" podcast program.
(Courtesy Shanette Chapman)

Shanette Chapman Being a parent is hard. Being a young parent... I became a mom at seventeen. It’s hard, and I love to talk about my struggles or the things I’ve overcome being a mom, being a parent, and... I was homeless. I had my at the time eight-year-old child with me, my two-year-old son with me, and life didn’t completely suck because I had a roof over my head, I had money in my pocket... but I wasn’t where I wanted to be. And being able to come into the library that the shelter provided, and just speak on things that I’ve been holding in for so, so many years... it was a release. It was great, besides the crying every week! But it made me a stronger person and I think a really strong mother.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You can listen to the first two episodes of Shanette’s podcast on "Outpost Redux." It’s on iTunes and also on our website: BKLYN library [dot] org [slash] podcasts [slash] community [dash] content. 

Adwoa Adusei And we just want to say that "Outpost Redux" and "Shine on Me," the program that Donald Peebles started, came out of our Incubator program. It’s a pretty amazing part of our library that gives funding to staff to allow them to build programs and services that are responsive to community needs.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras You can find information about BPL’s incubator program on our website. 


Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is brought to you by Brooklyn Public Library and is hosted by me, Adwoa Adusei, and Krissa Corbett Cavouras. You can find a transcript of this episode at our website, B-K-L-Y-N Library [dot] org [slash] podcasts, as well as a link to the Book Match list and social service resources at the library.

Adwoa Adusei There were a bunch of people who shared their expertise whose voices didn’t make it onto the episode. The staff at Breaking Ground—Casey Burke, Dinah Anderson and Aliyah Coleman—and Sarah Johnson at Hunter College who shared her insight about the history of librarianship and social work.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras Borrowed is produced and written by Virginia Marshall with help from Fritzi Bodenheimer, Jennifer Proffitt, Meryl Friedman and Robin Lester Kenton. Our music composer is Billy Libby.  

Adwoa Adusei Borrowed will be back in two weeks.

Krissa Corbett Cavouras For now, get home safe, everyone.

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