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Libraries are often on the front line of homelessness and mental illness. FIU social workers enlist to help
Christina Abreu, Delphine Gervais and Roselene Joseph

Libraries are often on the front line of homelessness and mental illness. FIU social workers enlist to help

March 13, 2020 at 11:45am

Libraries traditionally provide access to the resources and programs that we are accustomed to: books, computers, wi-fi and access to endless amounts of physical and digital content.

But libraries are also rising to the challenge of working with patrons who are in need of varying social services.

Today, the library system is consistently working with patrons who experience issues such as homelessness, mental illness, substance abuse, food insecurity, education needs and parenting needs. While librarians do an amazing job in stepping up to assist, the assistance needed by these patrons often rises to the level of needing professional social services assistance.

To help serve these populations, the School of Social Work at FIU’s Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work has partnered with the Southeast Florida Library Information Network (SEFLIN) to provide patrons in the Miami-Dade Public County Library System (MDPLS) a program that will bring much needed social services to the libraries.

“Libraries are really seen as a safe place during the day for a lot of populations to have access to computers, air conditioning and bathrooms," says Jennifer Abeloff, associate director and clinical assistant professor in the School of Social Work. "Social workers can help provide case management, develop relationships with community stakeholders and train librarians on how to work with vulnerable populations, who may be in crisis or dealing with trauma.” 

The program, which is funded by SEFLIN and began in January, currently has one licensed clinical social worker supervising two master of social work students as interns. The team has begun its work at one of the libraries with the greatest need for social services, the main branch in downtown Miami, where they assess and provide services to clients as well as training the library staff in best practices.

Working together, the social work team and librarians will develop a referral resource that can be used across the MDPLS as well as by the public. School of Social Work faculty and students will evaluate the program to create a model and proof of concept that can be applied at a larger scale.

“At MDPLS, there are many services and resources provided such as traditional programming and resources in addition to newer initiatives such as social workers who are available to speak with patrons one-on-one,” said Shana Hinze, Main Library Manager for MDPLS.

Hinze adds: “This service is reaching a population that is often underserved and overlooked. Recently, in the library world, there is a collective effort to reach those who have varying levels of abilities and insecurities. Patron-targeted programming with greater attention to inclusivity and accessibility are ways we are making the library a space that the whole community can enjoy. Similarly, in large metropolitan areas like Miami, where there exists a prevalent home insecure population, we have a real opportunity to provide programs and resources designed especially for those experiencing instability.”

Currently, there exist social service programs in libraries in cities such as San Francisco, Denver and Washington, D.C. The goal for the project in South Florida is to explore varied programming techniques and opportunities to meet the specific needs of the most vulnerable populations, incorporating empowerment, self-awareness, soft skill and employment skill set development. Building relationships, understanding and empathy for all is a most basic and vital component of successful transformation of individuals and community.

“Our hope is that this program will become a sustained part of the library system and social workers and social work interns will work alongside librarians in developing a mosaic of resources and programming to better meet the needs of all who live within our communities,” says Melanie Lorraine Zaskey, director of resourcesSharing at SEFLIN.

The project is igniting collaboration by building upon community partnerships among varied agencies and local resources. It is also the first of its kind in Florida to have a social work internship unit in the public libraries, with a focus on transformative librarianship.

For the social work students, the program presents unique challenges and opportunities.

“One of the main challenges working in this program has been in adjusting to the new setting and population served, as I come from a mental health background working as a case manager for children with behavioral needs. This is a whole new world for me,” said Christina Abreu, who is pursuing her master’s in social work at Stempel College and is one of the interns in the program.

She adds: “This experience so far has taught me that many patrons we meet with, despite whether we can immediately help them, feel for the first time heard and seen as a person first and that is rewarding in of itself. I am extremely excited to be a part of this and can already see how it is making me a better social worker overall.”