Mississauga’s first library-based social worker calls on Brampton to copy the idea
For some, libraries conjure up images of stuffy silence, dusty books and hefty fines. Represented in everything from classic literature through to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, they have an image as spaces for serious study and not much else.
However, major cities in Canada are transforming their libraries into something else. As the number of people borrowing physical books falls, libraries are becoming hubs for social work and outreach to the most vulnerable people.
Brampton's Springdale Library branch
“I think it is a bit of a myth that people are moving away from libraries,” Laura Reed, the manager at Central Library Mississauga, told The Pointer. “What libraries are becoming are community hubs. [There is now] a place for social services, there’s a place for culture and for entertainment. There’s a place for education and learning. It all sort of comes together.”
The City of Mississauga currently operates a social outreach program through its central library, which neighbouring Brampton is being urged to adopt. The project, called Open Window Hub, employs one social worker, Kevin Berry, in Mississuaga’s Central Library to offer support to the many vulnerable and homeless people who come through its doors.
Social worker Kevin Berry works in Mississauga’s Central Library and spoke to Brampton Council Wednesday about his role
As public spaces that charge no entry fee and provide free Internet access, comfortable temperatures and human company, libraries are spaces frequented by many vulnerable people in society. The concept behind Open Window was born in San Francisco in 2009, when the city decided to use its network of public facilities to address its intense homelessness problem. Despite its complex list of benefits, the structure of the project is simple: hire a social worker as part of the library staff.
In Canada, Edmonton was among the first cities to adopt the policy, with four social workers present in the library network by 2014. In 2010, the Brantford Public Library took on a youth worker. Hamilton runs a similar program.
Now Brampton is being asked to consider the same, as Mississauga reaps the rewards of a project that became a permanent part of the library budget in April.
“The Open Window project is based [at] the Central Library, though [we] support all the branches,” Berry said during an appearance before Brampton City Council. His presentation explained how the program is supporting vulnerable people in Mississauga and advocated for a similar system in the Flower City. “The space is used by vulnerable and marginalized customers — it’s a safe place to come to access services. It is about building relationships with customers within the 18 branch libraries, and the role has really evolved to intersect with other city services.”
Berry, accompanied by colleague Sandra Tavares, described to Brampton councillors how the Mississauga example offers city services to vulnerable people in innovative ways. Library branches offer a launch pad for social work staff to connect with homeless people, for example by providing a free shower pass or help applying for official ID they may be lacking, such as a health card.
“Often people ask what we can provide. We can’t provide housing, which people often really want, but we can provide small things like transit, health cards and care,” added Berry, who works with an average of nine individuals every day.
Councillor Paul Vicente asked city staff to investigate whether a similar project could be born in Brampton. Mississauga is funding the project to the tune of $90,000 this year, rising to $117,000 in 2020. But its real cost is reduced thanks to a sizeable donation of $130,000 per year from the P. and L. Odette Charitable Foundation, which is essentially bankrolling the concept. While staff are to report back on the feasibility of such a project in Brampton, tight budgets mean that the city might consider alternatives.
Brampton downtown Councillor Paul Vicente wants to explore funding to help the city's library users cope with issues they face
One option, according to Councillor Charmaine Williams, could be to expand provision of services by likeminded groups in Brampton. According to Williams, the Brampton Multicultural Centre (BMC) operates inside city libraries in a similar fashion, though the not-for-profit is not under the direct guidance of the city.
Although she did not rule out an Open Window Hub in Brampton, Williams was cautious in her assessment of the idea when speaking to The Pointer. “I have been on the library board; I know that the Brampton Multicultural Centre do operate out of our libraries,” Williams said. “It might be that [relying on BMC] is our way to address some of these issues, but it is not saying that Open Window isn’t a great initiative. It would just be that we need to look at how to incorporate the two, or even look at how BMC can help fill those gaps in a more robust way.”
Brampton Councillor Charmaine Williams thinks there are other possible ways to also support library users facing social challenges
With budget season fast approaching, councillors appear to be juggling a host of new costs ahead of 2020. “Right now we have many asks across the board,” Williams said. “We’re all looking at how to mould our budget to accommodate some of the proposed downloading from the province, so right now I think it’s very up in the air and we’d have to just see where we could find the funds for a program like this. But we will have to wait until the budget reviews come out to make that decision.”
As a resident of Brampton as well as the project’s lead in Mississauga, Berry thinks his home city would do well to adopt the project. He believes the city would benefit. “Homelessness is an issue all over. Brampton has more of a central downtown [where homeless people may congregate]. I know they [councillors] do great work with regeneration, but I think [the problem] is more visible in many instances in Brampton than Mississauga.”
Council voted to commission a report into the feasibility of hiring a library social worker. Berry and council will have to wait to see if staff determine the initiative is financially viable — the first step before councillors vote on whether to include it in next year’s budget.
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