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EPL's Community-Led and Safe Communities Innitiative

Edmonton Public Library, AB
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Innovation Summary

The Stanley A. Milner Library (downtown) has many customers living at-risk lifestyles. By incorporating professional social workers into this safe public space, the immediate social needs of these customers are addressed. Embedded in the values of Edmonton Public Library’s (EPL’s) innovative Community Led Service Philosophy, this project creates meaningful connections and relationships that stretch the boundaries of library service.

Innovation Leader: Pilar Martinez, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, pmartinez@epl.ca

Problem Statement

As an urban library, the Stanley A. Milner Library has many customers facing significant life challenges. Library staff, while compassionate, do not have the training to respond to the needs of at-risk customers. Library Outreach Workers are professional social workers trained to engage on a personal level with individuals, looking to identify immediate needs and to respond with supportive referrals to appropriate resources. EPL’s Safe Communities Innovation Fund project is unique in Canada and represents a proactive response to the pressing needs of customers who see the library as their only safe space. Outreach Workers embrace a person centred, anti-oppressive orientation. Their efforts connect individuals to services they might not otherwise find. Boyle Street Community Services, a local social services agency, is a partner to the project, providing both supportive services to library customers, but also contributing professional development to library outreach workers. Social work and librarianship are complimentary disciplines which embrace the inherent dignity of the individual and uphold the rights of all to access the resources needed to succeed. Both disciplines are grounded in social justice approaches and seek to reduce barriers to access. Embedded in the values of EPLs Community Led Service Philosophy, this project creates meaningful connections and fosters relationships that stretch the traditional boundaries of library service. Encounters with library based outreach workers are transformational and life changing.

Innovation

Library Outreach Workers proactively engage library customers identified as needing significant social supports, including help to gain housing, income, mental health and addictions treatment or support in getting personal identification. Library Outreach Services are available during daytime, evening and weekend hours as a drop-in service. Private consultation space is provided, as is general office space. Outreach workers are mandated to: 1. Identify and engage with individuals within the library and around the library precincts who appear to be at-risk. 2. Provide supported referrals to services and agencies based on client defined needs. Outreach Workers are committed to an anti-oppressive approach that allows the individual to set the pace of change. 3. Work in collaboration with library staff and area agencies to provide and lead programs of interest to library customers, particularly those with social challenges. 4. Educate staff on working with at-risk customers, including understanding of issues that contribute to disruptive behaviours. 5. Collaborate with library security staff in working with at-risk customers. 6. Demonstrate professionalism by working within the Alberta College of Social Work Code of Ethics and Standards of Practices. 7. Embrace the Canadian Library Association Statements on Diversity and Inclusion and Intellectual Freedom. With the EPL Community Librarians, Outreach Workers endeavour to build connections with the greater downtown community. The project has a mandate to bring the diverse users of the library together and to build understanding on community issues. Policies have been developed as issues are identified, such as when support in gaining personal identification is provided and how to address complaints by outreach clients. Confidentiality concerns are addressed through standard library practice.

Progress

Since its inception in July of 2011, over 700 individuals have been engaged by library Outreach Workers, with upwards of 50 new encounters each month. Key referrals include mental health and addictions treatment, income/employment, personal identification and housing. In 2012, nearly 300 individuals were connected with housing agencies. Outreach Workers support security staff, who often engage with at-risk customers. Security statistics show a consistent decline in severe incidents since 2011. Customer complaints about homeless customers and disruptive behaviours have also declined, demonstrating a growing understanding and tolerance for ‘those people.’ Library programming and community engagement activities bring diverse library users together on issues of common concern. The real impact is on the human level. Many who frequent the library are not merely marginalized, they exist as exiles within our modern age. Having someone reach out to them, listen to them, and accept them is a foreign experience. The process of re-humanization is at the core of what the Outreach Workers do. Offering resources is essential, but no more so than offering hope and the prospect of belonging. Building on a relationship of trust and respect, Outreach Workers invite people to look beyond survival and to ponder a hopeful future – an invitation to live, rather than to subsist. “I came in yesterday in dire straits, out of work, homeless and in tears. David took me in to his office, calmed me down, and assured me he could help! He was very, very helpful to me on a day when I desperately needed it.”