ROCHESTER, Minnesota – Recently, social worker Allison Carpenter said a woman in need came to the Rochester Public Library.
“Just freaked out, desperate for a way to get back home from the state,” Carpenter said. The woman had found herself in Rochester, Minnesota for a job that never materialized.
Carpenter immediately used her network of social workers and local services to find a way to help the woman get home.
The woman left the library with a bus ticket receipt in hand.
“She left my office with her arms raised, I could tell despite wearing a mask, she had a big smile on her face. And she just started crying and sobbing and she said, ‘I can go home,'” Carpenter said.
In her library office, she helps people navigate the often confusing and overwhelming social safety net — one that’s in even greater demand during a pandemic that’s bringing job, home and financial losses, the Minnesota Public Radio reported News.
Before Carpenter was hired earlier this year, library staff were getting questions about all sorts of things they weren’t equipped to answer, Librarian Brian Lind said.
“Questions about shelters, about emergency resources,” he said. “We would just put people in crisis, with mental health or mental health issues or chemical issues. And we basically had a book of phone numbers that we could point people to, and that was as far as we could really go since we’re not professionals in this field.”
Carpenter’s hiring reflects a growing realization that libraries are no longer just about books and quiet places, Lind said. Libraries in Minneapolis and St. Paul have similar programs, as do libraries across the country.
For people without shelter, libraries provide a place of warmth or Internet access. For people new to town, it’s a natural place to connect with the community.
“Because libraries are such a gathering place for the community, libraries are increasingly turning to the field of social work to fill some of the gaps,” Lind said.
The pandemic has greatly eased the need for things like housing, food, financial and mental health support, said Kelli DeCook, director of child welfare services for Family Services Rochester. Her organization uses social workers across the city and has partnered with the library to launch their program.
“In the last two years, resources related to pandemics have really increased, and homelessness is really a struggle in our community,” she said.
In the past few weeks she’s been working at the library, Carpenter said she’s been helping people find food support or connecting them to housing opportunities. Some need support with mental health or chemical dependency.
Some people, she says, just want to talk.
“I tend to try to get people to just tell me their story. And from there it’s been like a reconnaissance mission for me,” she said.
She takes notes. She is trying to figure out what other services people might need now and in the future.
Carpenter sees the long game in these ongoing conversations with library regulars. She said when people feel heard and understood, that builds trust.
“Now that we’ve spent half an hour and 45 minutes talking, it almost gives me like a map to work with if they come back later and are ready to work on something else,” she said.
Her office in the library, Carpenter said, makes her feel at home — a natural extension of the library’s mission.
“There are people whose mission in life is to find answers to the information they seek,” she said. “And now I’m here to help connect to resources.”