Though local warming shelters are expanding their accessibility this year, the city’s homeless community has come to rely on the Ann Arbor District Library for warmth during the winter months, leading officials to implement a program to provide extra support for library staff.
Following the unusually extreme weather conditions last winter, the Ann Arbor City Council approved an expansion of services to the homeless population at the request of the Washtenaw County Office of Community and Economic Development.
Director of WCOCED Mary Jo Callan proposed several recommendations to the council, including the expansion of overnight warming centers, increased funding for hotel stays when necessary and expansion of the services provided by the library, including the addition of mental health services.
Rates of mental illness are twice as high for homeless populations in the United States, according to the American Psychological Association. Because the library attracts members of the homeless community in Ann Arbor and surrounding areas, Callan said expanded services like a street outreach team, which provides mental health services to homeless people, are necessary.
The street outreach team, a Community Support and Treatment Services program contracted by the Washtenaw Community Health Organization, are now available at the library, following Callan’s recommendation.
“We got really clear feedback from the library that they are proud to play that role in the community, proud to be a space where all kinds of residents want to come to,” she said. “But, they really needed more resources and more understanding of area of resources to be able to help folks who are coming here with particular challenges, especially for folks facing homelessness.”
Josie Parker, director of the Ann Arbor District Library, said everyone is welcome in the library. However, she noted that if a person is a distraction to others due to impaired and uncooperative behavior, help is required to ensure the library can maintain its status as a safe place for its customers.
“When we have the numbers of persons in the library who are homeless that we had last year, the incidents of impairment and persons who are uncooperative with our staff about their behavior goes up,” Parker said. “It’s felt by everyone who’s in the library at that point time. We’re trying to mitigate that. In order to do that, we’ve reached out.”
As a response to the feedback, Callan said CSTS was willing to contribute their services to the library.
“They were very eager to step up to figure out how they could be more helpful to the library to make sure they have folks more of a presence there,” Callan said.
Parker said staff members from CSTS will be in the library more to work with their clients and relieve some of the library’s burden.
“That will hopefully help people get more attention for their physical needs sooner, than they might if Community Support and Treatment Support staff weren’t here,” she said. “It also takes some of the responsibility of trying to connect people in stress with public services from the library because we’re not qualified to understand what a person might be needing at any point or time.”
Along with CSTS services in the library, Parker said the library has partnered with the Ann Arbor Police Department’s community engagement officer group. Parker said an officer from the group is usually at the library every day to assist a person with impaired behavior.
In contrast to AAPD’s schedule, Parkers said CSTS comes on an irregular basis because it depends on the staff members’ schedules.
“It’s not a setup office hour type thing at all,” Parker said. “That’s not what this is about. This is just about being another set of eyes, a presence in the library and two groups that the library can fall back on now that we think is much more positive than just calling 911.”
Even though the two services run on different schedules, Parker said each program fills roles that compliment each other in an efficient manner.
“CSTS is the treatment and the support side,” she said. “The police department is the authority. They’re the persons who could come and help us make sure a person leaves the library. CSTS gets that person into a place that’s going to better for them than jail.”
Even with the implementation of these services at the library, Parker said the library will not become a permanent shelter where people can stay after its hours of operation.
“The library is not prepared to be a homeless shelter and we’re not trying to be,” she said. “That’s why we ask for help because that’s not what we are.”
Callan said these recommendations are planned for the upcoming winter, but it hasn’t been determined whether the approach will continue annually.
“We are not at this point recommending the city a perpetual plan that needs to be resourced and deployed as its currently being presented,” Callan said. “Having said that, both the county board and city council understand that we need to wait and see what we’re able to put into place next year.”
Even though the services have not been fully employed yet, Parker said she’s thankful for the help from the city and the county.
“I’m grateful to the City and the County for being willing to talk with the public library about solutions and come up with something that’s this positive and creative and not difficult to implement,” she said.
Correction appended: A previous version of this article stated that Josie Parker said help is required if if a person is a distraction to others due to impaired and involuntary behavior. She said help is required if if a person is a distraction to others due to impaired and uncooperative behavior.