Doin’ The Work: Frontline Stories of Social Change

Public Library Social Work - Elissa Hardy, LCSW

April 4, 2019

Public Library Social Work - Elissa Hardy, LCSW

2019, Shimon Cohen
Doin' The Work: Frontline Stories of Social Change

Transcript *disclaimer - transcript generated with speech-to-text technology and not edited

[0:29] And this episode I talked with Elissa Hardy who is the community resource manager at the Denver Public Library in Denver Colorado Elissa details the evolution of Library social work

how social workers and pure Navigators work with Librarians to serve diverse populations across 26 total locations

we discuss the work Elissa and her team carry out providing Social Work services to library customers experiencing a range of issues such as homelessness immigration and Refugee status gentrification

access to benefits mental health re-entry from incarceration and much more

Elissa explains how our team has been able to intervene with people struggling with addiction specifically opioid use and how they have stopped over 23 overdoses

she also shares her story of how she got into this work I hope you enjoy the conversation.


[1:23] Hi Elissa thanks so much for coming on the podcast really appreciate you taking the time to talk with me about the work you do and just to get things started could you let the listeners know what you currently do.


[1:36] Yeah absolutely thanks for having me I am the community resource manager at the Denver Public Library and basically what that means is a supervised and managed the social work and peer Navigator program in our library.


[1:49] So that's really interesting that there is social work in a library I've heard a little bit about this but I do think a lot of people

social workers people who are involved in human services and he misses kind of a newer aspect of Social Work

so maybe you could just talk about me there so many things I want to talk with you about but just to start off

maybe cuz talk about like what it would look like to someone walking into the library who maybe is in need of services and what that person looks like

and then how your team approaches. Person to provide services absolutely

so we work with any customer in a Community member experiencing any adverse life challenge which can be any of us

and I people come into the library for many reasons

weather that you know to look for research or to find a book or come to Story Time with their kids or it might be because you need to figure out how to get on SNAP benefits

or you're looking to access health care or mental health care and you're coming to the library to find those resources or maybe the library is that one place where you can come inside during the day because you don't have a home.


[3:07] And so we you know the libraries are open to everybody

we are free and equal access for all you don't have to have a library card you don't have to have an ID or anything to walk into the library and spend time there.


[3:20] So lots of people who are looking for services or just a place to be come in and and spend time in the library

and so our she and connect with people who might be having those challenges and are looking for resources to help support them in

they're looking for so they might be cold drop-in hours during the day at most of our locations and so people can ask the librarian or a security guard or whoever it might be

what are their peers about how do I how do I talk to about this

and they direct them to our drop-in hours to come in and talks with your Navigator or a social worker during that time to look into those resources and get connected and build relationship other times like today for example in Denver it was really really snowy

we had a lot of people who are just basically coming in to get out of the weather and so one of the true Navigators took a basket of socks and hand warmers and granola bars and water bottles

and walks around up and down through the whole Library over and over and offered these things to people and made in Dutch know their names and build those relationships too and then you know just shared with those people what

we do and how we can help connect people to resources and often times that's how we how people get connected to us as well.


[4:38] Sometimes people are just coming in to get out of the elements you know just for a you know a controlled environment to use the restroom to read the books to get on Wi-Fi

get on the computer and not even knowing where they are

and then Wednesday start talking to one of someone on our team that gets to know that or they might ask again the librarian

or security guard a question and they they direct people to us that way

sounds like there's just so many different aspects about what you do and you address one of the things I was going to ask you about it's kind of like how the word gets out about this but that's such a great example of Outreach within the library itself

how long is the program been around 4 so I started exactly four years ago this month so exactly 4 years ago when I was hired they started the pro

and what what's it been what was it like to come into a library as a social worker I mean in in build up this program can you kind of talk about the evolution of the program

yeah absolutely

I was kind of looking for a different job I was actually driving to the mountains for work everyday and I live close to downtown and I was looking for something back in the downtown area and working with the homeless population because that's.


[5:51] Where my heart is

and my friend shared with me to this job description and I you know I did a little research found out that they had a social work program in the library in San Francisco and she had some great articles written about what they were doing out there

and so I applied and I got it not having any idea what this meant

what it would look like just recognizing that the reason the library wanted to create this this position was to really address

homelessness in an people experiencing homelessness coming into the library mostly because the Librarians recognize that they didn't know all the resources and didn't really know how to best serve that population

and I think that's really easy that's really kind of where most libraries start with these types of programs is looking at a weed dressed the homeless population

and really what it what it comes down to then the evolution of this is really coming in and bringing social work and librarianship together

to meet all of the needs in our community libraries do a really good job at finding what those social needs and gaps are in and working shoes to fill those but it has to collections like certain books.


[7:01] And such things like that or programming

we have makerspaces all of these things whatever that Unity might need and we're in we can come in with this social work lens and even look at it a little bit more and definitely

and see what those needs are

so what we work downtown areas we work with a lot of people most of the people we work with are experiencing homelessness or are there marginally house

we now have some Services out into the branches we have 26 total locations

your mother we still experience you know come across people experiencing homelessness out there A lot of times it's more of you know people who are living in their cars

and or families who were staying with family members and such so maybe not so much staying outside but are still not actually house they're just just staying with other people just trying to stay off the streets

let me see a lot of that going on in addition

you know what is Denver's growing and gentrifying and in people are getting pushed out of their neighborhoods were seeing a lot of issues with that I'm including people getting pushed out of their housing that they lived in for

forever years and facing homelessness for the first time in our lives at like 60 70 80 years old.


[8:15] And you know also just a lot of racial disparities in those kinds of things as well

so coming again that again in with that social work lens looking at these different social injustice issues and being able to help inform the libraries

and best practices in ways to address this and recognizing that there are disparities in treatment and

just how her approaching things differently in each location as well that that we need to look at and an address in with that

looking at you know not only treating at programming within the library but what Partners can we bring in just to support those groups as well because there are a lot of nonprofits and other social service agencies we work with you to bring in services

into the library where people already are so do a lot of that so the program has grown over the in those regards over the last 4 years

in addition we've added three other social work positions

one of those social workers really covers are peppers or downtown area the other one she's on the west side and she also supports are immigrant and Refugee programming and then the other one on the east side and she covers a lot of our our children and family stuff that comes up

and we were able to create a really successful career Navigator program as well so we have secure Navigators on our team

and these are people with lived experience from anything from having experience homelessness to substance use issues living with a mental health diagnosis.


[9:44] Being an immigrant or from a family who immigrated here you know just different life experiences because we're trying to match people with the with the customers were working with to build those relationships

and make those connections it's just incredibly impressive what you're talkin about in

you know I think about the library a public library in the sense of and what you're saying is like it's really converting this public space into this kind of like one stop

no I don't want to say One Stop Shop but kind of like this Clinic where people can come in and then get Services there but then get linked to services in the community and it really just makes sense.


[10:24] How is how was it received

from the libraries perspective at first like how is this kind of been received and the beginning and then of course where things are at now

yeah it has been an interesting ride clearly we had some buying before we created Big Freedia in my position otherwise this wouldn't have even happened and that start with x

a group of librarians that formed a committee and wanted to hire social worker and.


[10:52] Who's that to Administration into the board and then to the city is where a city agency to create that

with that being said at the city initially said you can try this for two years we'll see what happens when not really sure the library needs this

once I came in we started seeing how we can make some change they made my position permanent within a year and we added a second social worker at that time

so the city bought in pretty quickly

most of our board did as well but some of our board members as well as some of our staff members were really unsure at first there was a lot of concern about Mission creep

and you know, that whole idea if you build it they will come for you bring Social Services into the building you're inviting more people in and what we've learned is that isn't true people are already there

we've increased staff on the team we have a lot more contact with people we have that you know we measure that but

these are people that are just now coming to the library because they heard there are social workers are these are people who are coming to the library anyway you just didn't know that they had those meat.


[11:56] So demonstrating that and explaining that And discussing that with our staff is really important in in our board and and other community members you might question this

because it it dispels some of those myths

and you know I kind of explain it as you know the libraries is public space if you imagine the public and you put like four walls around it at the library or just really what we have inside our walls

is just you know like a sample an example of what's happening in our community so we really have this unique place within the library to identify what those needs are

in the community that we might not be able to recognize another ways in that can help inform policy and in and things like that.


[12:40] In addition we had a lot of concern around this when we started having an increase in opioid overdoses in our library a couple of years ago with the Holt the opioid stuff going prices going on

and what we were able to do it that time is we started carrying Narcan in the library so we have

over three-fourths of our staff trained we have about total of 600 staff in our system has over 500 people are trained in how to use Narcan and you saved over 23 lives

realize that this point with Narcan from overdose and so we just really took that approach of like now we're going to we're going to make it change we're going to do something about this and just

really you know expressing that and intent of using the library is an example of what the rest of the community can do.


[13:29] Yeah it's just so interesting in the fact that you've got this harm reduction approach within a library and that you've gotten this buying

is is just so impressive you know you talked about some of the different specific populations you said immigrant and Refugee and there's some programming

could you describe what kind of programming exists like some specific

some details of the programming absolutely

it's really recognizing that a library is harm reduction we're helping reduce harm in many ways by helping people get out of the elements

Kumon use the phone get online McNeese connections all of these things are actually harm reduction within themselves so whenever that question comes up because we know harm reduction can be controversial

is like we're already doing it by existing there's no reason we shouldn't have narc and there's no reason we shouldn't have Sharps Containers in the bathroom

we shouldn't we should be collaborating with her syringe access programs to make sure people are connected as well as can I see people to healthcare and all of those things we just that just actually makes a lot of sense that the library is harm reduction

show with the programming for we actually have a program within the library called services to immigrants and refugees or store for shorts

if anyone likes acronyms more than social workers it's librarians.


[14:54] Language walking in the door and it's a really amazing stuff we have a lot of that the programme is run primarily by volunteers do miniyar

immigrants or even refugees themselves who have come to the to the United States and I'm are giving back to their community

and so it's a lot about having conversations in your language I'm working on your English skills and figuring out what those connections are in those resources sources are in your community to help support you and your family

what we learned within that over the last few years is we know that a lot of people to social people who might be undocumented.


[15:39] A little afraid to come in and say I'm having issues with my landlord because lots of things can happen as it is a result of sharing that and being afraid you're going to lose your housing

and so that's what we placed a social worker in their de squirts that programming

so people can have someone to talk to and we can bring an advocacy groups to help people and support them with that

we got a long ways to go in the in what we're doing and we're actually collaborating with an agency that supports that population to create a know your rights training so just to have people come in to know what their rights are

especially if I should show up or or other immigration concerns so we're doing a lot of that that work as well to help people feel

you know informed and empowered Indian in those in those situations

we also have we received a grant a couple of years ago and we've carried some of the programming on from this grant that we started with it so it's programme for people experiencing poverty and homelessness.


[16:41] As we have a hard times writing Workshop that we that we provide in collaboration with the lighthouse Writers Workshop here in town that does writing workshops

this program has been going on for almost three years and it's really incredible and it's it's so successful we're looking at starting three more groups

one that will be in our Denver City Jail and another one in Denver County and maybe even through the re-entry process from from Corrections

engage people in writing about their experiences and sharing that and what we've learned in the group we have is that it's really helping people build connections and heal

from from those experiences one of the women in that group just got published which is really great

and so we're looking at expanding that because it's been so successful in what we'll do with those

I'm glad another group at the library as well so if people come out of those those jail settings they can come in and carry on this work with the program in the library

and have that connection with the instructor with a peer Navigator and the in there in the people they've matched to build those bridges in those those relationships

another program we do is our coffee connections

are different libraries around the country they do a coffee and conversation so with this is our version of that where we have different staff

post coffee and donuts once a month for people experiencing adverse life challenges basically so people come in faster than coffee.


[18:07] And donuts so we're serving people and we have arts and crafts so people have something to do with their hands while they're trying to make conversation because people feel more comfortable with that.


[18:19] Hammer building those relationships in that has helped cut about your question before of you know our some staff concerned about this or has it been you know as everyone had buy into this

and there have Bruce staff especially those who are not public facing

you were really you know it's felt uneasy around people experiencing homelessness or having different experiences from their own and what this is done is build those relationships between the staff and the customers and his actually helps with that a lot as well

that's an example of some of our programming it's so inspiring you know cuz when you create something and you.


[18:56] There was that initial buying and then you had you said you know the city basically said we're going to see how this goes but then within a year they already made their decision

was there data that you had am assuming there's date there was some data there were some numbers that you had to report to them to get that decision made what

what kind was that just for people who are listening that want to do something like this question I'm not even sure because I actually asked us for the numbers at that time they were there just recognized that we are having some impact.


[19:29] When they looked at creating this position they were also thinking about

how do we decrease 9-1-1 calls to the central library because there were a lot of those around customer Behavior

SMU no legal issues and things like that so you know where security team is doing the best that they that they were trained to do in responding to these these issues and

but they they're not social workers they don't know the resources you know they're their job is to make sure people are following the library used to policy

and getting them out if they're not so what we've been able to do and I think in that first year

what we did is really demonstrated like having Social Work Work really closely with our security team and doing some training with security

responding with security to those situations I've walked into more bathrooms to respond more security than I ever thought I ever would and I just helping to you know kind of.


[20:26] Role model and show that you know also with that trauma-informed piece that a lot of the people that we encounter

have experienced trauma and being able to just sit with someone and say you know I know you're having a bad day let's talk about it for a little bit

versus what you're doing is wrong you have to leave and go a long ways so just demonstrating that we didn't really have a decrease in 9-1-1 calls right away

but it was really we kind of started showing some trends of the reasons why we were calling 911 and why we weren't anymore

so is really more legal issues or you know medical emergencies and things like that and we continue to call for but for like behavior issues in in that kind of stuff we don't have to do that anymore we can work on that with the person

and so that was demonstrated

and you know other than that you know we do track the number of contacts that we that we make my first year at the library just little ol me doing some program development as well I had 434 contacts

meet with customers and in last year with it with you know for sure Navigators in three social workers we had about 6,000 contacts so

is demonstrating how great that needed and again it's not bringing more people in the need is already there and I think that's one of the reasons this took off.


[21:45] Yeah I mean it's truly that social work aspect of meeting people where they're at they were already there and you're

you're just putting people there that have the proper training and skills and knowledge to 2

yeah that's exactly it it just makes so much sense from a social work perspective and the people are already there and and what I've learned to is a lot of the people that are there

don't know that there are certain agencies or programs that can help them with the issue that they're facing until we talk to them about it

or they have systems trauma and I've tried so many times and and have been told no or things didn't work where you know whatever it was that happened is that you're trying to get the housing or or access mental health care that they just gave up

and so we can build that relationship and connection and it helped walk them through that in that process now.


[22:39] Yeah that's actually not I was thinking to you know just going to a library and having someone approached you is probably a lot less stigmatizing.


[22:49] Then you know

feeling like you've got to show up to a mental health clinic or a hospital so yeah it's absolutely much less stigmatizing

when walking into a you know what Clinic like you're staying also it's a little less intimidating

and maybe decrease some of the fear around that as well if you can just have a casual conversation with a library staff member

today maybe can connect you to someone that makes a big difference than walking into an agency and asking for help

where you don't know if you know how you're going to be greeted if you're going to be told you need to have an appointment

or what are you need certain paperwork or whatever it is we can work through that on the front end

and I'm help people feel safer and better about walking into those places in addition we really work with our partners on

having them come to the library for that first meeting with someone

yes I do feel safer there and they have that connection with us and so we we make that cuz they come to the library for that first interaction and then that person then knows them and then they can you not see them outside of the library.


[24:00] It's awesome that's great so just to kind of shift gears here I'm wondering you know what is the most challenging aspect of this work for you.


[24:10] I think you know it's interesting being a social worker our brains work a little bit different than library and Bray because her trained differently

and again I'm so sorry librarianship can come together and do some really great stuff

but it's a little you know it can be really challenging to be the one social worker in a room of 20 Librarians and their brains are all working this way

and I'm like why can't we just do this because you do and there's a lot of like analysis going on and in all of this and so sometimes you know things move a lot slower

then what we might be used to in a social service setting and that was certainly an adjustment for me

in addition what I really learned in this is part of librarians training shoe is they really want to know will tell me what to do I just want to know what to do

and so the answer of well everyone all humans are individuals is all very gray

it depends it depends on the situation is we always say

that's really hard for librarians to adjust to that so really what I've been saying a lot lately as I'm doing training with Librarians is we're giving you information

it's for you to take in this information and make informed decisions on your own with this like me can't tell you exactly how to handle every single situation.


[25:31] Because they're all different and when you think you've seen everything something will happen if everything so that's a little bit of a challenge in

and there are some you know trainings out there for libraries that really trying to try to answer that like will tell me what to do

as a social worker I can't really support that because it is very individual we don't want to put blanket statements over groups of people

another thing that can be really challenging is just just seeing the

social need in our communities where there are so many gaps in service and living in a community where housing is a really big issue and we're really behind in

in creating affordable housing options for for individuals and families and that's that's really frustrating and it can be hard

hard to deal with in just a friend.


[26:26] Even the way that different agencies like City agencies approach social issues in kind of email lumping them into 60 concerns

when they're really social issues or Public Public Health crisis

versus a safety issue so really you know what we can do to get into some of those rooms and have those conversations though so that helps but at some of the frustration

yeah you know when you're talking about the housing issue in

do you know right now I mean this episodes going to go live in a few months but this is February when we recording this and it's incredibly cold as you were saying

it's a life-or-death issue right I mean being homeless in Denver Colorado is

a life-or-death issue compared to maybe being homeless somewhere like where I am in Miami which it's still a very serious issue but the repercussions in Denver.


[27:20] Birdlife or not exactly and honestly like our weather isn't even as bad I can't even imagine you know what's going on in Michigan with this polar vortex in Chicago

another Nor'easter in the cities in areas where it is

you can't be outside and I've really been thinking a lot about people who are in house during this time but yeah we see a lot of

you know in the wintertime a lot of issues around frostbite and things like that and then in the summer it gets really warm here and we are at high altitudes people get tea high

dehydrated really quickly if they're new to town especially if you're not used to that in the inside like sun exposure is a really big deal as well.


[27:59] Wow there yeah there's you see it all there you really do it's it's pretty impressive.


[28:05] So I'm I was wondering how did you get into this work it how did you get into social work if you're comfortable you know saying anything

yeah when I was in college I started out as is a major in broadcast journalism I was going to be the anchor woman on the news


you know I remember being one of my journalism classes and we were we were writing a story about it was a made-up family but a family that had lost their home in a fire

and I remember thinking as I'm writing a story like I don't want to expose these people's trauma to the rest of the world I would actually rather like to get in there and help these people

and so I took the intro to Social Work class just to kind of see what it was about I was always interested interested in Psychology and such

and it clicked and I was like I don't make sense

that is awesome me where you know we didn't talk about emotions and there was some other stuff that the adverse experiences that happen

I now recognize that. That's part of why you know we all have our stuff that brings us to this work

I really had a desire to really work with people to work stressing substance use issues

add a little bit of that myself and had a lot of friends who you know really you know I was able to get some help and change some things in my life but I had friends who didn't and really wanted to to get in and help with that.


[29:30] So after I finished grad school I worked in an adolescent treatment program this was in Omaha Nebraska where I went to grad school

and then move to Denver and see in a couple of years after that after I got my clinical license in work for a homeless agency downtown

not really think you could ever work with the homeless population but sick will check it out it's a job to get me to Denver we'll see what happens

and I fell in love with the population and really enjoyed working with them and

and along the way started teaching at The Graduate School of Social Work at the University of Denver and really learned a lot about trauma and in teaching those courses and

and policy is well and and have a passion for for social policy change and all of that so my current position has really kind of launched into that which is nice.


[30:17] It's a great story on so many levels you know the personal aspects of it and you're right I mean most people that are in social work have some story to tell and I like asking people their stories because I think it's important that

it gives others await identify and relate you know I think.


[30:36] People who work for doing the work already or people who are thinking about getting into it or students were listening

and then the part about the class where you decided like I want to help this family I don't want to tell their that this is on the news

that's such an interest I've that's the first time I've heard a story like that so that's pretty cool

where you headed up on the news anyway so just for different reasons you know the times kind of flown here in terms of our conversation and

I just want to thank you so much for taking the time again to come on here and also for for doing the work in the community the work you're doing is phenomenal and it's inspiring a lot of people and I just keep hearing

more and more about Library social work and you know social work in libraries whatever the right terminology is.


[31:28] And you know you're you're like the go-to person

when when this comes up so just so appreciative that you came on here. Great life

and we're happy to help support anybody and anyway and thanks for asking I appreciate it.