At Anchorage library, pilot program connects patrons to social services

On a sunny spring afternoon at the Loussac Library: people sip drinks in the cafe, rummage through the stacks on the second and third floors and lounge in chairs next to big picture windows. Then a voice comes over the intercom: Rebecca Barker, the library’s new full-time community resource coordinator.

“Good afternoon Loussac Library!” she said. “If you are looking to move out, get your own place, leave shelter or change your housing for any reason, come join us at Housing Lab. Work one-on-one or independently in our weekly workspace, until 5 p.m. in the Salmon Room.”

Information about local housing, employment, food and health resources on display at Anchorage’s Loussac Library on April 9, 2019. (Photo by Kirsten Swann/Alaska Public Media)

The housing lab — a free public workshop held Mondays from 2-5 p.m. — is part of an ongoing library pilot program seeking to connect library patrons in need with local housing, food, employment, health care and other resources. Barker said it’s built around the central role libraries play in their communities.

“People come to the libraries with all kinds of questions,” she said. “Some of those questions aren’t really answerable in the stacks, like ‘Where am I going to stay next week?’ or ‘How do I get into treatment?’ or ‘What do I do? My cousin’s disability check was denied and we’re hungry.’”

Barker — the first full-time social worker to work at the library — tries to help answer those questions.

She said the idea for the program took root in Anchorage several years ago after an in-person survey of library patrons revealed a quarter of respondents reported experiencing homelessness. Another quarter reported experiencing mental illness, addiction and other conditions. So, through a grant-funded partnership between the Anchorage Health Department and public library, Barker went to work full time at the library last fall. The pilot program is scheduled to run through December 2020.

The program is based on a model pioneered in San Francisco and eventually expanded to dozens of libraries around the country, Barker said. A decade after the program began in San Francisco, advocates call it a success. In Anchorage, where the program is less than a year old, the results are harder to measure.

Data collection is a challenge, according to the community resource coordinator. The Anchorage program doesn’t currently offer case management, which means there’s no formal follow-up with the library patrons Barker serves. But here’s what she does know: over the past seven months, she’s worked with more than 200 people. She’s helped library patrons fill out applications for treatment and apartments. She’s helped at least three people successfully avoided eviction. And one patron, a veteran who’d been living in his car, who was successfully housed within 72 hours.

“That’s the ideal; that’s the success story that we want to model and repeat, and it’s all about just getting connections with the right agencies to the people who are already here,” Barker said.

When it comes to long-term success, social workers say community connections are key. Leah Esguerra, a licensed therapist, began working at the San Francisco Public Library 10 years ago. Working with other local agencies and providers, she said, the library’s social work program has helped find permanent housing for more than 200 library patrons since then.

“I always say that the success of this program is actually the partnerships that we have made with community organizations,” Esguerra said. “So when other libraries say, ‘Oh, we’re a small town, we don’t have those resources, we don’t have those partnerships,’ I say, ‘No, that’s not necessarily true.”

There are differences between the programs in San Francisco and Anchorage. In San Francisco, Esguerra provides full clinical assessments, while in Anchorage, Barker offers basic information and assistance. But both programs are built through partnerships with nonprofits and community groups doing the same kind of work. In Anchorage, the library has partnered with more than 10 local organizations, from the Anchorage Coalition to End Homelessness to Cook Inlet Housing Association, Access Alaska, the Mental Health Consumer Web and others.

It makes sense, Barker said.

“Libraries are already community centers; they’re already places people go to feel connection in a safe place,” she said. “So if we can bring community resources and make them accessible — that’s the dream.”