Recently, social worker Allison Carpenter says a woman came into the Rochester Public Library in distress.
"Just absolutely beside herself, desperate for a way to get back home out of state,” Carpenter said. The woman had found herself in Rochester, Minn., for a job that never panned out.
Carpenter immediately tapped her network of social workers and local services to figure out a way to help the woman get home.
The woman left the library with a bus ticket confirmation in hand.
"She walked out of my office with her arms up in the air, I could tell even though she was wearing a mask, she had a big smile. And she just started pouring tears, just sobbing saying 'I get to go back home,’” Carpenter said.
In her office at the library, she helps people navigate the often confusing and overwhelming social safety net — one that's in even higher demand during a pandemic that comes with job, housing and financial losses.
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Before hiring Carpenter at the start of the year, library staff would get questions about all sorts of things they weren’t equipped to answer, said reference librarian Brian Lind.
"Questions about housing, about emergency resources,” he said. “We would get people just in crisis, psychologically or mental health or chemical issues. And we basically had a book of phone numbers that we could refer people to and that was about as far as we could really go, not being professionals in that field."
Hiring Carpenter reflects a growing recognition that libraries aren't just about books and quiet spaces anymore, said Lind. Libraries in Minneapolis and St. Paul have similar programs, as do libraries around the country.
For people who don't have shelter, libraries offer a place for warmth or internet access. For people new to town, it's a natural spot to get connected to the community.
"Because libraries are such a community gathering space, libraries are more and more looking to the social work field to help fill some of the gaps,” Lind said.
The pandemic has put the need for things like housing, food, financial and mental health assistance into stark relief, said Kelli DeCook, director of child welfare services for Family Services Rochester. Her organization plants social workers around the city, and has partnered with the library to start its program.
"Really pandemic-related resources have been on the rise for the last two years, as well as homelessness is really a struggle in our community,” she said.
In the last few weeks that she’s worked at the library, Carpenter said she's helped people find food support or connected them with housing options. Some need mental health or chemical dependency support.
Some people, she says, just want to talk.
"I tend to sort of try to have people just just tell me their story. And from there, it's kind of like a fact-finding mission for me,” she said.
She takes notes. She tries to draw out what other services people might need right now and in the future.
Carpenter sees the long game in these ongoing conversations with library regulars. She said that when people feel heard and understood, it builds trust.
"Now that we've spent a half hour, 45 minutes, and we've chatted, it kind of gives me almost like a map to work with, for when they may come back later ready to work on something else,” she said.
In her office at the library, Carpenter said she feels at home — a natural extension of the library's mission.
“There's people whose life's passion is to find out answers to information that you seek,” she said. “And now there's me to help connect to resources.”