Public libraries are community gathering spaces and resource centers, open freely to all. At Evanston Public Library that open welcome is made wider by the presence and skills of a full-time social worker. The Evanston Public Library welcomes Christina Mendez, a licensed clinical social worker, to the library through a partnership with Presence Health. Christina, who started at EPL in September 2018, will provide referrals to community resources, government benefits application assistance, emotional support, and consultation and assessment services to the public, as well as offer training to library staff members. In addition, four social work interns from a variety of Chicago social work schools have placement at EPL.
Says Library Director Karen Danczak Lyons, “For people experiencing homelessness, joblessness, loneliness, or mental illness, the library can be a sanctuary. For the elderly, new mothers, new immigrants, or teens, it can be a vital connection point. A social worker extends our ability to provide necessary information and resources for everyone.”
Library Social Work: A Growing Phenomenon
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.”
Social work in libraries is a growing phenomenon as economic disparity grows and disadvantaged individuals increasingly find refuge in the welcoming environment of the public library. The first mental health library worker was in San Francisco. Others now are employed in Baltimore, Denver, Brooklyn, San Jose, and Oak Park. Mendez replaces EPL’s first social worker Justine Janis who moved on in September to start the first social work program at Chicago Public Library.
Says Mendez of her new position: “This is a great environment for social work, Here I feel I can help the community in an innovative way. I am busy every day in this public space where people can talk openly to me about concerns and share snippets of their lives. I hope to continue to foster an environment of openness and availability to everyone who comes here,” says Mendez.
Lyons spearheaded the effort for social worker support in the library in 2013 with limited hours for student social work interns, arranged through Presence Behavioral Health, leading to a full-time position which is funded through the Northwestern University Good Neighbor grant fund as administered by Mayor Hagerty and arranged through a contract with Presence Behavioral Health.
The library sees patrons dealing with a variety of difficult issues, including those who have fallen into poverty. Referrals for tenants’ issues, immigration services, health and wellness matters, hunger, and resources to combat homelessness are all part of the variety of resources a social worker can help provide. Since February 2017, there have been more than 1000 encounters with Library patrons covering a variety of services including de-escalation, support, case management, referrals, filling out applications, housing support and much more.
Adds Lyons, “We continue to seek new ways to provide equitable access to resources. Evanston patrons come from such a large range of different backgrounds and circumstances. A social worker fits in beautifully among the books, the programs, the technology, and the librarians to provide a new and impactful layer of service.”
Christina Mendez can be reached by phone at 847-448-8659 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.