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City libraries are determining their role on the front lines of Austin’s homelessness crisis

Wednesday, March 28, 2018 by Jessi Devenyns

In many major metropolises, libraries and the shelter-seeking population are intertwined and social workers have been brought on staff to help bridge this gap. That is not the case yet in Austin. For a year, the Library Commission has been conducting a Homelessness Working Group Project in an effort to better define the role of the Austin public libraries within the dialogue of our city’s homelessness crisis. Commissioner Cindy Fisher, who was on the working group, explained that although “we are three people and are not going to be able to solve the city’s problem,” the libraries are a major player in the solution because their staffs are on the “front lines” and deal every day with this underprivileged population. Based on their discussions with stakeholders and library staff, the working group determined that the city is in need of a social worker on staff who is trained to interact with this population. Although Commissioner Catherine Hanna explained that the working group originally wanted four social work professionals on staff, it settled on asking for one in hopes of being awarded grant funding – this full-time employee would not come out of the libraries’ city-allocated budget. “The city has made this a priority as well they should,” said Commissioner Hanna. “If (they’re) going to make this a priority, this is a small thing to ask.” However, hiring a trained social worker is only the first step. According to Roosevelt Weeks, the director of the Austin public libraries, one individual is not going to be able to meet the needs of the entire city – solving this problem is going to require a joint public-private effort with many employees involved. “The needs in every community are different and you can’t do cookie-cutter with those,” he said.

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