By: Megan Kinney, Library Manager, of Bayliss Library
Names changed to protect privacy.
Me: [huge smile and open demeanor, sits down at the same level] Hi, I’m Megan. I have noticed you seem new to town and I have seen you hanging out here at the library, I want you to know you are welcome here and we are happy to have you. What’s your name?
Patron: [no smile, a bit guarded] I’m Lynn.
Me: Hey Lynn. How are things going for you and your partner?
Patron: [cracks a smile, whole body relaxes]
Megan and Lynn - visiting on a bench in front of the library
She tells me her partner is Peter. He has severe social anxiety, never diagnosed nor documented. Peter is a native of our small, isolated town. His family is not in a position to help, due to addiction, unemployment, and mental health issues. They can sleep there sometimes, but it is not entirely safe.
Lynn is from “down-state,” the “mitten” of Michigan. The lower peninsula. She was fleeing a bad family situation but wrapping up an online high school certificate in Culinary Arts.
From that point on, we had a rapport. Well, more than just a rapport, we had trust and mutual respect. Both of which are hard to come by when you are experiencing homelessness. As a “local,” Peter had exhausted his resources here and Lynn was considered a “relocation,” who did not qualify for social services.
Let’s take a step back. Many, if not most of us, live in states with one large metropolitan area and huge swath of rural land, filled with communities struggling to survive. The isolated, rural communities are typically divided by geo-socio-economical divides that seem insurmountable. The upper peninsula of Michigan is often described as isolated.
One of our public housing developments - this one for homeless and disabled.
The town of Sault Ste Marie has about 13,000 people, and our district’s two-county service area is a mere population of 35,000. In my thirty years in libraries, I have yet to work in a state or region that does not have these obvious divides and barriers.
The public library is the equalizer. The one place that anyone, absolutely anyone, can enter and be welcomed and accommodated.
Need to check your email or social media, but do not qualify for a library card? Have no fear, we have guest passes.
Want to peruse classifieds in the local paper? Come right in!
Exhausted from sleeping hard? Snoozing in our cozy reading areas is an option!
Need a smile and some support? We have that in droves.
In fact, Lynn said she recognized my smile immediately when we met. She knew my smile and affect meant that she would feel supported, without judgment.
Salvation Army - They provide a meal every weekday, distribute donated non-perishables, and their leadership has presented to library staff
I met Lynn and Peter six months ago. In that time, they have both found work, and are slowly but surely getting back on their feet. Have there been setbacks? More than I care to divulge; each one of them soul-crushing. Perhaps the best part about our work together? More than half of our upcoming Staff Day will be devoted to the unique aspects of homelessness in our region, with local experts sharing their experience and resources. Guest speakers will come from the Salvation Army, and our three County Community Action Agency, the coordinated entry point for anyone experiencing homelessness. We will all benefit from the reminder that compassion and empathy are truly the foundation of library services, and from learning about local resources we can point our patrons to. After all, that’s our job!
My goal is that staff will leave the training feel more confident about referring people who need resources, they will be open and approachable, and they will feel comfortable talking to community members who may feel uncomfortable around people experiencing homelessness.