From Winter Mornings to Wifi Access to a Community Courtroom
As cities around the country grapple with diminishing public spaces, budgets and services, many libraries are becoming an essential place to help those without permanent shelter. Our Town Reno wanted to find out if this was the case in Reno. We interviewed Jeff Scott, the Director of the Washoe County Library System and Brenda Owens, the downtown Reno branch manager. The answer is a resounding yes.
From long lines in the morning to recently adding a community court, from providing a warm space or cool space depending on the weather, from reference services to the Internet, from access to books to clean rest rooms, the downtown Reno library is essential in helping our neighbors without shelter. Often times, we set up interviews ourselves at the library because it’s a welcoming non judgmental space which seems to also make people calm and reasoned.
A new service being offered is a weekly community court session held Wednesdays in the library’s auditorium so that those cited for minor infractions can be oriented toward available city services rather than jail time and fines. Started this March, a recent Wednesday had over 50 people scheduled for docket.
Here below is a Q and A with Scott and Owens on the new court, the importance of libraries in today’s society and challenges.
Q: Do you think public libraries play an important role in today's society?
Scott: I mean, that's the only free public space… The problem with the shelter is that overnight, you have that shelter, but some people may not feel safe in the shelter. So where do they go? And (when) the shelter kicks them out at six o'clock in the morning, so then where do they go?
We've tried to change the hours to help accommodate that, to open at 10 o'clock here. It gives them a few hours before they can actually get inside. And that's always a concern, during the winter, when it's snowing and that sort of thing. And sometimes even when we've had power outages or services we can't provide, you know, there's still a desire to stay open just because you have a lot of people coming in, just sheltering here or just hanging out here, so they're not in the cold all day.
That’s a community benefit that gets under reported about just having that kind of space, just for everybody to have that space. If you're not homeless, maybe your HVAC is broken at home. You need to have a place to cool off. We’re working on a project too with emergency management with the county about people who are evacuated. So if they are evacuated from their homes, fire or flooding, you know, what kind of services can you provide beyond the basics?
Q: What does this tell us about our society and our community that public libraries are becoming safe havens for our neighbors without permanent shelter?
Scott: I think that (there’s this) general trend where (people) want to move the problem around and they don't want to help solve it. I know one of the things I worked on when I was in Berkeley previously, it was we had a homeless commission that we worked with and we developed that with a number of nonprofits in the area.
And one of the things when you have these homeless commissions that you have in many communities, they don't actually include homeless people on those commissions.
Q: Can you tell about this new community courtroom?
Scott: So the City of Reno used to have a court where you would get a minor citation, and you'd have to show up to court. And a lot of times because that's an intimidating process, (people) wouldn’t show up. Then they get a warrant for a no show and then it escalates, their jail time, it escalates the punishment.
So, now we have the community court coming (here) on Wednesday mornings instead.... So if you have citation, you come to the library and instead of going to jail, they get referred to services.
So there's a whole host of services that we provide that the city provides and partnerships and then they can get assistance and get help as opposed to going to jail. Sometimes you may have, you know, an off mental health day or just having an issue. And all of a sudden it can escalate into something where it's jail time and instead of that, getting them help is always a thing that's preferred.
Q: What are some of the challenges you face when doing so much in helping those without shelter?
Owens: Sometimes …. hygiene issues. That's usually a pretty uncomfortable situation. Asking somebody to not be in the building until they get cleaned up, get their possessions cleaned up… The other thing is mental illness, just being able to handle (it), knowing what to say, what not to say, what to do, and how to treat people fairly and with respect… knowing that they are going through something that I have no experience with.
Q: It must be difficult to turn someone away because of their hygiene, no?
Owens: It is. I think that's my least favorite conversation. Usually before you try to tell them, you try to make sure that nobody else is in the area. I certainly don't want to embarrass anybody… and just say, you know, we've noticed and we've had some complaints that we've got some odors and then at least give resources that we can send folks to, to do laundry, take a shower... I know the Record street campus offers all of those services, so we try to send folks over there to take care of that.
Q: Any security or drug issues which you face?
Owens: Every once in a while, we do…. I mean there are certain security issues where we do call law enforcement . And then there's other times where somebody in a uniform is going to escalate the situation. … Usually it revolves around either mental illness or somebody being in somebody else's space. I know homeless people, they have space issues. I don't blame them.
In terms of drugs, we do have sharp containers in our bathrooms. We used to have to pick up, (and also) paraphernalia outside of the building, on a fairly regular basis. That seems to have gotten better. We installed lighting outside the building, which has helped deter certain activities outside, but it is something that happens.
We've got people in the building that may have medical conditions that we don't know about. And we don't know how to respond. If they're sleeping, even if their head's down, we just say, you know, we need to see your eyes open. You need to be awake. It's just in case something happens.
Q: Some libraries like the Seattle Public Library have units devoted to mental health counseling, job training, legal assistance, domestic violence support, medical health, food aid and securing housing. Are there any plans like that in Nevada?
Scott: I think the closest we get is just having the community court and having those resources available. But of course that's always after an incident has occurred. Right now, we don't have the funding to get a social welfare officer here. There's not really enough tax support in Nevada to deal with a lot of those kinds of services or provide that kind of service. So we try to work with different agencies to come in to provide that support.
Q: Any final thoughts for this interview?
Owens: It just comes down to helping, just helping people, making sure that, you know nobody feels left out. That to me is a really rewarding thing. I know some people that walk in this building, I've said it a couple of times… they don't have anybody in their life that's nice to them.
Sometimes they don't have a verbal communication with anybody in any one day. So knowing that we can be that for someone… that's a pretty rewarding feeling, but sometimes it can be exhausting. It kind of makes you sad sometimes, but knowing that you can provide that to somebody, that's a pretty rewarding feeling.
Scott: One of the things we did recently was to open seven days. And the theory behind that, beyond providing good service, was that, you know, the homeless need services every day…
I think that people underestimate the power of a library services. you get free reading materials. If you want to educate yourself, you can do it for free at the library and you can kind of learn about anything that you need to…. So it's an amazing kind of service that you can provide to people. It was kind of joke that the library is there for when your curiosity exceeds your budget. So if you're interested in something and you don’t want to pay for it, we have the resources. You have small kids, they want to read books and we have free books that they can read… We’re here for every aspect in every phase of life for people.