Libraries serve as a central gathering place where everyone is welcome and information resources and services are free for all. This wide open welcome will be more expansive now that the services of a licensed clinical social worker are available on a full-time basis at the Evanston Public Library.
Says Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, “We are accustomed to bringing services to where people are and that can mean beyond the walls of the library. People facing homelessness, joblessness, loneliness, or mental illness may see libraries as a sanctuary. So we’re bringing the expertise of a social worker here to serve them. We intentionally seek to make the library a calm and welcoming space with resources for everyone.”
Nationally, it is estimated that there are about 16 social workers working in public libraries. The first mental health library worker was in San Francisco. Others now are employed in Denver, Brooklyn, and Oak Park.
In her first month at the Library, Justine Janis, LCSW, who began her work here in February 2017, has had almost 100 interactions with patrons dealing with homelessness, poverty, and mental health issues. Justine, who has a Master’s Degree in Social Work from Washington University in St. Louis, has provided them with referrals for tenants’ issues, immigration services, health and wellness matters, and services for the homeless. She’s served people who have recently fallen into poverty, and those with no health insurance or those who can’t afford their co-pays, in addition to getting to know some who struggle with chronic homelessness.
“Many people in this community are struggling to make ends meet,” she says. “It can be difficult to navigate public assistance programs and know what resources are available to them to help people back on their feet. Part of my role at the library is helping to connect individuals to food pantries, housing resources, mental health resources. I have been working to develop relationships with service providers in the Evanston community so that I can make appropriate referrals and share this information with patrons in need.”
Sometimes, though, she’s just there to listen.
“I also see myself as being supportive for whatever people are going through,” says Justine. “Sometimes we need help dealing with our problems, especially when things pile up, one thing after the next. I love the idea that I’ll have the time to engage and build relationships with the patrons, time that is so rare in modern healthcare,” she says. “People at the library, especially the librarians and the security staff, have been very receptive and helpful in getting the word out about my availability and in connecting me with those who could use assistance.”
Adds Lyons, “the Library is a place where our patrons can find shelter and a computer to use, but we can provide them more than that.”
Lyons spearheaded the effort for social worker support in the library, starting in 2013 with limited hours for student social work interns, arranged through Presence Behavioral Health, and now Justine’s full-time position which is grant funded and arranged through a partnership between the City of Evanston and Presence Behavioral Health.
Cindy Castro, Manager at Presence Behavioral Health, says that having social work services available at the library, a location where people already gather and feel comfortable, “helps remove the stigma of getting help.”
Another goal is to help support librarians with education on dealing with troubled patrons. The librarians, Justine says, are very compassionate and willing to listen. “They really care about patrons, and I don’t want them to burn out by doing that,” she says. She works with them and with library security staff to make sure the library is a safe place for everyone, where everyone is respected whether employee or visitor.
Each month dedicated social workers working in libraries all over the country participate in a conference call to network and support one another, sharing information and issues. Justine has spoken with—and will soon meet—her nearest colleague, the social worker at the Oak Park Library, to share ideas. In the future, she will plan public programs on important issues in mental health and wellness.
Justine Janis can be reached by phone at 847-448-8659 or by email at JJanis@cityofevanston.org. Appointments are strongly recommended. She can be found at the Main Library on Tuesdays from 1 to 5pm, on Thursdays from 11am to 7pm, and on Fridays or Saturdays, alternatively from 10am to 6pm. She can be found at the Chicago Avenue/Main Street (CAMS) branch on Mondays from noon to 8 pm.
Photo: Lynn Trautmann, LTPhoto Evanston