The Fields Corner Branch of the Boston Public Library.

Credit: Gabrielle Emanuel/WGBH News

The Library Is A Resource Amid Opioid Crisis And Homeless Shelter Closure

July 31, 2017

If you walk into Dorchester’s Fields Corner Library Branch, there’s a good chance you’ll see 68-year-old Jerry Barrett.

He’s there almost every day, along with a team of friends. “Everybody comes,” Barrett said. 

They come first thing in the morning to read the paper, play chess and chat. And often, he says, they stay until the library closes.

When I catch up with Barrett, it’s mid-afternoon and he’s just woken up from a nap in one of the library’s comfy chairs. He’s with a friend who — after a few beers — has put his head down on the table. “I’ll keep an eye on him,” said Barrett.

Barrett readily acknowledges his group’s not always sober or clean, but he says they’re respectful and lucky to be at the library.

“We don't have no [sic] worry when we come in here.” Barrett said. “No violence or anything. It’s just peaceful here.”

The motto of Boston Public Library is: "Free To All." With the closure of a major homeless shelter a few years ago and the ongoing opioid epidemic, this message takes on a new meaning as Boston’s libraries are figuring out how to live up to their mission of providing services for everyone.

While Barrett says things are peaceful at the Fields Corner Branch, Kimberly McCleary, the branch librarian, admits that some days are hectic. She says problems often center on the bathrooms, where people sometimes go to wash themselves, or even do drugs. 

“We've knocked on the door and nobody's answered and we keep asking: ‘Are you okay?’ And then we'll say, ‘We're calling 9-1-1’ just to give them the last chance to come out,” McCleary said. “We've had to call the ambulance many times."

McCleary says when she went to school to become a librarian, this isn’t what she envisioned. But it’s not just Fields Corner. This is part of a larger challenge libraries are facing.

“We are a daycare center in some ways for folks who are housing insecure,” said Gianna Gifford, Chief of Adult Library Services at the Boston Public Library.

Gifford says some of this is just the reality of being a public space in a city. But, in recent years, it has become a particular focus.

“Two years ago, we noticed a sort of uptick in the homelessness population because of the Long Island shelter that was closed," she said. 

Long Island was home to the city’s largest shelter as well as several drug recovery programs. It closed abruptly because of concerns about the bridge used to access the facility. Some of the hundreds of men and women who left the island decided the library was the best destination.

Librarians asked for help serving this population, so the Boston Public Library formed a Homeless Working Group.

“We actually all agreed that we would interview different libraries across the country to get a sense of what other large, urban public libraries have been doing,” said Gifford, who was part of the Homeless Working Group.

In the midst of an epidemic that's challenging medical experts and straining social services, Gifford says, libraries are focusing on what they do best: “We're not social workers but we, as a library staff, what are we good at? We're good at resources and information.”

They set out to make an updated guide to all the different resources available: “What shelters are available? Where can you take a shower? Resources for homeless teenagers. Where can you go for a meal?” Gifford said.

In addition to their master guide, Gifford says they've also learned how to serve patrons who’ve experienced trauma. They heard from architects on how to redesign spaces to lower the chance of problems, such as changing where the bathrooms are located. And some library branches are now stocked with Narcan — a drug that helps people who have overdosed.

Back at Fields Corner, Cynthia Dye is a children’s librarian with a popular robotics club and regular story time. But she’s dealt with plenty of adult patrons.

She remembers one in particular: “He was not in good shape," she said.

She suspected he was on drugs but still, she worked with him day after day after day until “he disappeared — just he didn't come in.”

A month later, he came back in a suit looking sharp. He’d come back to say thank you to Dye for being welcoming. He explained that he’d been on painkillers after an accident.

“And he basically taught me that I didn't know the whole story,” said Dye.

With or without the whole story, librarians are changing their practices to preserve a space that's truly "Free To All."

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