By Samantha Swindler, Oregonian Writer
@editorswindler | 503-294-4031 | sswindler@Oregonian.com
Susan Voss-Rothmeier walks the halls of Portland’s Central Library, a bag slung over her shoulder and a clipboard of resource lists in her hands.
She looks for opportunities to discreetly approach people and quietly ask if she can be of help.
“It’s walking around and meeting people and just introducing myself,” Susan said of her typical work day. “I just keep it low-key.”
Susan is the first, and so far the only, on-site social worker contracted with the Multnomah County Library system. She’s three months into a year-long pilot program that provides free social services to patrons in crisis.
Central Library, where Susan spends the bulk of her time, has a jarring juxtaposition between historic opulence and modern poverty.
Opened in 1913, Central Library was restored to much of its original Georgian Revival design during a massive renovation project in the mid-1990s. While the building now looks much as it did 100 years ago, the function of the library, and the people it serves, have greatly changed.
Wi-Fi and computer access are now some of the most popular uses by patrons. And increasingly, those patrons are experiencing homelessness and mental health issues.
As I walked the three public floors of the century-old building recently, I watched a man try to get some sleep on a bench, his bags of possessions surrounding him, beneath a massive oil painting of Morris W. Fechheimer, an attorney and former library director who served from 1872-1886.
I wonder if Mr. Fechheimer could have anticipated that this institution of learning would one day become a safe haven for Portland’s homeless.
Susan’s actual job title is “crisis worker,” not because there’s always a loud crisis in the library, but because she’s not meant to be a long-term case worker. She refers clients to other service providers and follows up with them to make sure they have what they need.
Sometimes they need help to get an intake to see a mental health provider. Other times it’s a list of shelters or places for a hot meal. Occasionally, they just want to talk.
And it’s not always related to homelessness. Recently, a woman had gone to the court house for a restraining order, but felt emotionally overwhelmed by the paperwork and walked to the library to clear her head. Susan helped her fill out the paperwork and walked her back to the courthouse to turn it in.
But homelessness is a big part of Susan’s job, and “more often than not” the people she works with do not have permanent housing. Certainly being homeless is a high-stress situation that may lead to or worsen a mental health crisis.
The library doesn’t keep much in the way of records on its patrons, but a 2013 survey of more than 1,000 of them – of whom, 80 percent were users of Central Library – found that 18.6 percent self-identified as homeless.
There is a misperception, I think, that homeless patrons regularly cause problems at the library. But the vast majority of them come for the same reasons anyone enters the space: a quiet spot, access to reading material or wi-fi, computers to look for a job or housing.
Both times, I visited Central Library, I witnessed someone being escorted out by security. A pair of uniformed guards contracted through the sheriff’s office maintain a visible presence.
But I worked there several hours and found the space to be clean and calm, the library staff friendly and helpful, and the patrons unassuming and quiet. I never felt unsafe or uncomfortable. No one approached me. No one asked for money, though I had tucked a dollar into my pocket just in case.
A few weeks ago I wrote about the difficulty of having a “normal” conversation with someone experiencing homelessness. I suggested buying a copy of the Street Roots newspaper.
Here’s another way: Hang out at the library. It’s one of the last truly democratic institutions. Nowhere is it clearer that the homeless are members of our community than at the library, where we all have equal access to services, equal treatment and fairly similar reasons for being there.
“One of the things that I’m always struck by is the degree of trust that people have in this institution,” said Vailey Oehlke, Multnomah County’s director of libraries. “That gives us some opportunities that I don’t think are necessarily always the case. It means people are willing to come to us in their most vulnerable times, they’re willing to ask for help and not worry about how that may be received. And we value that.”
That trust makes a library uniquely positioned to offer social services to a vulnerable population. San Francisco was the first library to hire a social worker in 2009. Since then, a growing number of urban libraries are hiring or contracting with social workers; Pima County Library in Arizona even hired nurses.
If you’re among the people who believe libraries are dying in the digital world, congratulations. You are blessed to be able to afford a personal device to access the internet and can likely pay to have books shipped to your door. But for many people – particularly those who are low income – the library is a critical connection point to the outside world.
Even if you prefer to order your reading from Amazon, I recommend you check out Central Library. It’s not only a beautiful building, it’s – as Vailey says – the community’s living room. It’s a place to meet your neighbors.
Morris W. Fechheimer, I think, would be proud.