Anchorage, Alaska is a midsize community similar to other urban areas in many ways and is home to the state’s largest public library, Z.J. Loussac Library. The library is a safe, warm, and welcoming place, but also is often a place that reflects community needs. Like other urban libraries, Loussac was seeing an increase in patrons who needed assistance that often fell outside the scope of what public libraries are traditionally equipped to provide. Sarah Preskitt, who came to the Library in 2013 as the Adult Services Librarian at Loussac, immediately recognized that many of the patrons utilizing the library needed more help than librarians and staff could give. At the same time, other members of the community were beginning to declare their resentment at having to share public space with people who were homeless or displaying challenging behaviors.
Indeed, the needs noted by Preskitt are real and compelling. A recent in-person survey of 739 library patrons conducted by the Anchorage Public Library found that 27% of respondents reported experiencing challenges, such as mental illness, alcoholism, dementia, developmental disabilities, and/or traumatic brain injury. Further, 24.8% of the patrons completing the in-person survey, and an additional 81 patrons who responded to an online version, were currently experiencing homelessness.
Not to be stopped, Preskitt began searching for real solutions. In 2015, she met Dr. Pam Bowers, a then University of Alaska social work faculty member, and the two developed a collaboration between the library and students enrolled in a social work practice with organizations and communities course. From that collaboration, the idea of developing a practicum site at the library developed. In August 2016, Preskitt began supervising Rebecca Barker, the first MSW social work intern at the library, which marked the beginning of a wonderful partnership to end homelessness among library patrons.
From her experience, Barker strongly believes that information sharing via a respectful therapeutic relationship can be a positive facilitator for empowerment and encouraging patrons to connect with needed services. Along with regularly assisting patrons, Barker developed a community resource guide for the librarians and staff, attended city homeless coalition meetings, and was trained as a coordinated entry site for the city.
“That positive relationship you build with an individual allows you to create confidence in that person to reach out to access needed services, which is scary, and overwhelming. But when they have the support and experience of a positive human interface, you create confidence in the person to take the challenge and reach out to access services.”
~ Rebecca Barker
This year, MSW students Katelyn Sonido and Tamara Boeckman (pictured right) are interning in two city libraries where they work with librarians to address a variety of unmet informational and social service needs for patrons, many of whom are experiencing homelessness. Each Sunday, Boeckman and Sonido staff a resource table (pictured below) in the welcoming entrance of the Loussac Library.
In addition to working with patrons and assisting with referrals, Sonido developed a very popular weekly job lab that assists patrons with job searching, applications, and interview skills at the Mountain View Library. Boekman also provides advocacy work and assists library leadership with developing procedures for patrons who have violated library rules to assure due process. In addition, the two have presented to librarians and staff about trauma-informed homeless services and barriers to care.
“The library has become an integral place in the community to reach homeless individuals that other Continuum of Care agencies haven’t reached.”
~ Tamara Boeckman, MSW
City librarians and staff appreciate the students and feel they provide increased access and empowerment through information and resources within the library. This partnership has been so successful that the library is currently seeking funding for a full time social worker.
“The MSW students are better at asking hard questions and their training prepares them to understand what people need and where to start uniquely with each patron. They can help patrons prioritize their needs in a really skillful way.”
~ Sarah Preskitt
Blog Post Authors: Kathi Trawver, PhD (Associate Professor, University of Alaska Anchorage), Sarah Preskitt (Adult Services Librarian at Z.J. Loussac Library), Rebecca Barker, Katelyn Sonido, and Tamara Boeckman (all MSW students)