A family experiencing homelessness comes to the downtown Renton library almost everyday. And they needed new suitcases. They carry all their belongings with them, and live in a tent encampment. The suitcases they dragged around each day were old and worn.
For many folks experiencing homelessness, libraries become a sort of day center. Folks walk in when it opens and stay until closing because there’s no other safe, sheltered places to go. As homelessness continues in the region, a librarian might be approached by a patron looking for safe shelter or food, instead of where a certain book is on the shelves.
Typically, someone will come to the service desk at the Renton library with that question. If a librarian realizes it’s out of their scope, they go back and grab Melissa Glenn from her desk to come assist the patron.
Glenn has been the downtown Renton library’s social worker since April. Last year, King County Library System (KCLS) approved money in its budget for a full-time social worker to be in Renton.
For the family with worn suitcases, Glenn put out a request on local Buy Nothing Facebook groups, and was able to gather some large, rolling suitcases for the family.
“I gave it to them, and at one of these (library tables) they took their old suitcases, took everything out, spread it all out, and put it into the new ones,” Glenn said. “And every day they thank me that their things aren’t falling out onto the ground anymore.”
Glenn works mainly in the downtown Renton library, occasionally visiting Highlands, Fairwood and Skyway libraries.
KCLS wanted to start the social worker position in a library with enough needs, such as patrons experiencing homelessness, that it would be busy, but not so much that it would be overwhelming. The management of the libraries in this region were also excited and supportive of adding this position, Glenn said. The area also has many programs and services Glenn can connect people to.
As the first social worker in this role in the library, she also gets to build the program “from the ground up.”
The social worker position works as a catch-all for the service needs of patrons coming into the library. Glenn has the flexibility to offer immediate services without the barriers of paperwork and procedure, which would likely be anywhere that wasn’t a public library.
Other places put a criteria on the folks in need, requiring certain diagnosis or hours of paperwork, but at the library none of that applies. Glenn said anyone, regardless of income, job, physical or mental health status, can come get help from her.
“And I love that,” she said.
People don’t come to the library expecting a social worker, so Glenn said she likes when someone is pleasantly surprised with the services they received.
In one example, a patron was told to approach Glenn, and when she walked up to him he was skeptical about the services.
“He gruffly said, ‘This is a library, not a hospital, I don’t know what you can do for me,’” Glenn said.
But by the end of their talk, she had gotten him all the resources he needed.
The Renton Senior Activity Center, Renton School District and certain treatment centers also refer folks to visit Glenn at the library. She can help, for example, a person complete paperwork that the senior center staff might not know how to fill out.
Glenn said she gets a lot of questions from patrons about how to get housing, transportation and food. She has food bags and hygiene bags available for emergencies, and makes referrals for those folks to the other shelters in the area. When she’s not assisting patrons, she also does some administrative work, offers guidance for other staff and leads trainings.
She will work with a person to determine what their needs are, and then directs them to the appropriate specialists, like a mental health provider or employment counselor. She spent a lot of her early days creating relationships with those specialists, Glenn said, so she knew who she referred folks to.
One day when Glenn was at the Renton Ecumenical Association of Churches (REACH) Center of Hope, she met a woman and her daughter experiencing homelessness. The woman was struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder, and Glenn referred her to homeless outreach mental health team.
Weeks went by, and as with most patrons, Glenn wasn’t sure if that woman used the referral. Then she saw her again at Center of Hope, and the woman had not only started receiving counseling, but her and her daughter were about to move into an apartment.
She said the woman told her if it weren’t for that referral, she wouldn’t have been able to get that housing.
Glenn doesn’t always get this kind of positive feedback, or get to see the referrals she gives someone work out. But she believes that by communicating to every person she sits with that they have value, and that she cares about them, it can make a difference in their life.
“At least for 30 minutes, or an hour or a phone call, they knew that somebody cared for them,” Glenn said.
Previously, Glenn worked at nonprofit behavioral health agencies, providing counseling services. She said this job offers more variety; she provides direct services to individuals, trains staff on how to work with patrons with challenging behaviors, talks to staff after difficult situations in the library and plans resource events.
Downtown Renton library had a traumatic event that several staff witnessed or were involved in, and Glenn said she was able to talk them through what they felt about it and what they needed to feel safe again.
She said feedback from other staff was that they felt supported and that the talk made them feel KCLS was thinking about how they were impacted.
The training Glenn offers to staff include trauma-informed care, which she said helps people move away from judgment and towards empathy. Staff learn to be more sensitive to the trauma a person might have experienced, instead of making assumptions in their conversations with patrons.
Another training, mental health first aid, explains some of the common mental illnesses, signs to look for and how to respond to patrons who might be experiencing those issues.
Glenn said one colleague always tells her what she is learning from the way Glenn talks to struggling patrons, how to have better conversations with them.
A social worker in a library?
Some people argue social services aren’t what the library is for, and that this could snowball into the library becoming a social services center or attracting those with health risks and needs, Glenn said. But folks are going to come to the library whether they offer these resources or not, so she argues they may as well meet the need already in the building.
Libraries have always been there for folks as a public space for information, resources and sharing.
KCLS regional manager for the area Amy Eggler told Renton City Council about Glenn’s role at the Aug. 12 Committee of the Whole meeting. She said she also gets asked why the library would have a social worker.
“Anyone can, and does, walk into the library. They can ask anything, and we’re going to help them as best we can to get them that answer,” Eggler said at the committee meeting.
Glenn said having a social workers at the library feels like the next logical step for this type of public place. She said KCLS adding a social worker is a “responsive and progressive” decision.
As the needs of the community changed, the resources folks ask for from libraries changed too.
“People now come here looking for a list of shelters, a suitcase or help with a housing application. But that’s still a resource, that’s information I’m able to provide,” Glenn said.
This also frees up staff in Renton libraries that would either struggle to help patrons with these questions or spend a lot of their hours assisting them with this work. Glenn said the goal is to expand the program with additional positions at other libraries and social work interns to increase their ability to help.
Eggler said in the few months Glenn has been with KCLS, she’s already made “truly remarkable” progress with patrons.
“We see a lot of the same folks everyday, we see their condition improve or falter, and with (Glenn) available as a resource, its already made an impact,” Eggler said at the meeting. “We see some of our regulars move along, in a good way. In a positive direction.”