Public computer terminals at Brooks Memorial Library have long been an important resource for those without internet service.
Randolph T. Holhut/Commons file photo
Public computer terminals at Brooks Memorial Library have long been an important resource for those without internet service.

Library finds growing challenges in accommodating urgent human needs

New resources from HCRS bring specialized support to library, other town departments in Brattleboro

Librarians are known for their compassion, but it may be wearing them down.

Brooks Memorial Library has always been a welcoming place for the community. But the population of those experiencing homelessness, drug dependency, and mental health problems has increased in Brattleboro, bringing with it new challenges for patrons and a library that is mission-driven to serve them.

Now the library is receiving some help from Health Care and Rehabilitative Services (HCRS) for a few hours, two days a week. Library Director Starr LaTronica calls the help "thrilling" and "magic." But she still needs more.

"We're bringing people together here, and being supportive and being welcoming and being kind to them," LaTronica said. "But we just see so many people who need help that we aren't trained and prepared to give them."

What kinds of things are the librarians encountering? Some of the experiences are dire. Homeless people who lock themselves in the bathrooms at night rather than be turned out into the cold. People with mental health issues who scream or threaten other library patrons. People who throw things. People who bring barking dogs into the main reading room.

Sometimes, help from the police is necessary.

"We've had people who refuse to leave at the end of the day," LaTronica said. "We call the police and ask them to come. Then we tell the people that they can't come back unless they have a discussion with us and understand and agree to these parameters. But we've had people at nine o'clock that just don't want to leave. And we've had other situations where people have just reached a breaking point and destroyed library property. Or when when the staff feels endangered."

These kinds of things are unacceptable, she said.

"All those compassionate people that went into library work did not sign up for that," she continued. "We've lost at least one staff member who felt that her health was just being endangered by working here. She felt not safe."

The town now has what LaTronica describes as two "very nice" security guards who patrol the transportation center and also make themselves available to the library.

"We have a security guard that comes to help us close up - to make sure that everybody's out," LaTronica said. "They're a nice presence of strength, without being oppressive."

One of them recently held his wedding at the library; LaTronica was one of the witnesses.

The police also have an embedded HCRS worker; he has been able to help with unusual situations at the library. One day recently, for example, a man showed up at the library wearing a hospital gown, paper trousers, and a jacket.

"He managed to get in the library and sit down in one of our chairs with wheels on it," LaTronica said. "Then he scooted over to the circulation desk and said, 'Can I use the phone?'"

She noted that the library does offer a courtesy phone "for folks that don't have phones - and there are a lot of people who don't."

After the call, he pleaded with staff to give him a ride home. "He was pretty frail and pretty infirm," LaTronica said.

The library called the police's HCRS worker.

"While we were waiting, he asked if we had something to eat," LaTronica said. "So I went upstairs and got him a granola bar from the staff room. And one of the board members had donated a big beach towel that she had got from somewhere, and I put that around his shoulders because he was cold."

When the HCRS worker arrived, it turned out that the two men knew each other. So the man got his ride home.

Extra help is a must

The HCRS person at the library is Care Coordinator Mary Lachenal.

"I have helped people make primary care appointments," said Lachenal, who previously worked at Groundworks Collaborative. "I've helped them sign up for Medicaid. I've helped people with food stamps applications there. And sometimes I just sit there and talk with them."

"Mary is great in that she has a background with a lot of these folks," LaTronica said. "We have a limited experience. She has a much deeper relationship with them from her work at Groundworks. So that's been really, really helpful."

In some circumstances, she has been present "when people get worked up," she continued.

Lachenal, Latronica said, "has the training to intervene, to have a discussion, to calm somebody down, to get to the root of the problem: 'OK, what's needed here? What is the issue right now?' Because sometimes, somebody will fly off the handle. And that's really not the root of the problem."

For example, someone might be talking into their cell phone.

"We will ask someone not to talk on the cell phone while they're at the library," LaTronica said. "And sometimes people take offense, take umbrage at that. And they really come back strong verbally with us. But Mary is there to intervene and say, 'You know, what's going on is not just that they can't talk on the cell phone here.' It's like that was the final straw for them."

Rather, "they're feeling that they have no respect anywhere. They have no power anywhere. They have no place anywhere. And now they come to the library, and we're telling him, 'You can't talk on your cell phone,'" she continued.

"Mary is very good at defusing a situation and then taking that next step: OK, what do we need to do? How do we need to make this better? That's been fantastic for us."

Lachenal is not a social worker; she is trained in "trauma informed care."

"It's a way of approaching situations where each situation is unique to the individual," she said. "There could have been trauma. Behavior could be stemming from trauma. We don't know anybody's life story. But that doesn't make them any less of a person."

A problem could be something as simple, but as time consuming, as needing help to access a crucial service.

"We need to sort of sit with that person, to see where that person would have the most efficient connection to get the resources they need," LaTronica said. If the person is looking for work, for example, staff asks, "Do you need the Department of Labor?"

"We need to know where to send that person," she said. "So we needed somebody who has their finger on the pulse of all those places. We also needed somebody who can recognize when somebody's in trouble and to refer them to places where they might need to go for emotional support."

Literacy might be a problem; some people are reluctant to admit they have trouble with reading.

"They don't want to say, 'Yeah, I can't read that.'" LaTronica said. "They say, 'I'll tell you what to type in and you type.' But that takes an enormous amount of our time. We're honored to do that work, but it takes a lot of time. And it means that we can't do something else."

HCRS is charged with providing community health care in Brattleboro, Springfield, and Hartford.

"We have developmental services programs, we have adult mental health services, we have community rehabilitation treatment programming, and we have care coordinators," said HCRS Care Coordination Team Leader Lindsy Mack.

"Most of the work we're doing is to support individuals in their respective communities who might be having barriers due to the challenges of their mental health experience," she said. "Or if they're a person with a disability, we help with trying to help navigate the barriers that they may be facing."

Crisis assistance is another service provided by HCRS.

"Our primary focus is just supporting people with developmental disability and mental health struggles," Mack said. "As care coordinators, our objective is to help connect people to or to resolve what we call 'social determinants' or 'health barriers.'"

"Being homeless can be very challenging for folks," she said.

"Even the most healthy of us, if you find yourself homeless, you might find that you're also now suffering from depression or anxiety because it's a very stressful situation to be in," Mack said.

Not having health insurance can also create barriers.

"Having the ability to access treatment is another difficult situation," Mack said. "Our objective is to try to help people that may be facing those types of challenges in their lives, to move around or through those challenges, and to get them connected to resources that can help them sustain wellness in their lives."

Having HCRS on the scene can help the library in many ways, Mack said.

"Depending on how many staff they have on, the library might not have time to help every one that comes in with a need for, like, an application to be filled out," Mack said. "Or maybe its somebody that's looking for resources for recovery from substance use disorders. Or maybe somebody who's looking for mental health resources as well. The whole gamut. We're just really there to help support the librarians in those situations."

The clientele dependent on the library may arouse fear and suspicion in some community members.

"There's a lot of fear," Mack said. "And I'm not saying from the librarians. Amongst the community, there's a misunderstanding sometimes around 'How do I talk to someone when they seem to be kind of escalating.' And sometimes it's just going over and saying, 'Hey, how are you doing? How's your day going?'

"But if you don't have the training to understand, it can be intimidating for a lot of folks. So we're there just to really help out in challenging situations that they come up, and help get those folks to the right places to help them manage whatever it is that they're needing."

This is not a situation limited to Brattleboro, Mack said.

"What I've been seeing from libraries, not just in Brattleboro, is that this seems to be a place where people go to find resources," Mack said. "As well as go to read and do research and things like that."

HCRS personnel are "available in other situations, and in other buildings, anywhere in the community where those services are needed," Mack said. "We're not exclusive to the library."

Books, compassion, and connection

LaTronica said librarians come from a place of compassion, a place of "How can we help?"

"It's sort of innate in the people that go into this profession," she said. "Certainly, if they go into public librarianship, in this day and age. And at least, if they are on this staff."

When the library recently did a new strategic plan, it listed its values: Kindness was at the top.

"That is really what we bring to everybody that comes in here," LaTronica said. "That is of absolute premium importance."

A recent report by the U.S. Surgeon General called loneliness a national - and deadly - epidemic.

"This is one way that the library can really contribute to this community," LaTronica said. "We can help mitigate some of that loneliness."

Even the weakest connections are important, LaTronica said.

"People come in and ask [librarian] Ellen Martyn for a good book, and they trust her to give them a good answer," she said. "They rely on that. And you have to have those kinds of interactions to stay healthy mentally."

LaTronica described a regular patron who is often confused. "She knows that if she comes here, we will help her figure out where she really needs to go to get her prescription filled," she said. "Where else would she go to find that?"

Brooks Memorial Library is "open to everybody, all ages," LaTronica continued. "Really, the library is uniquely situated to keep a community knit together."

The library is an especially welcoming place for teenagers.

"They talk about the key to adolescents' growing up safe and not engaging in risky and destructive behavior is peer support," LaTronica said. "So when we have these teen groups, people come together and engage in substance-free activities and feel supported here."

Teen patrons, she said, "see themselves reflected in the literature. They know that there are special activities. They know that they belong here. And where else can teens go that there is no membership fee or admission fee to participate in something like that?"

Studies show that the mental health and well-being of children, even of preschoolers, depends on social and emotional development as much or even more than intellectual development. The library has taken upon itself to provide it.

"We have preschool story times where they learn to interact with other kids," LaTronica said. "Parents can come together at those same events and share experiences and find mutual support. And again, it's all free and open to everybody."

She described the story times as "great."

"You really get a cross section," LaTronica said. "You get people who wouldn't encounter each other otherwise."

In a way, the library has taken on the role of providing the community with connections.

"We're connecting [members of] the community to one another, to services, to a world of literature, and to events," LaTronica said. "What's been lost so much, even pre-pandemic, are connections."

She cites Robert D. Putnam's 2000 book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community.

"He saw all this coming, all this social isolation, and the devastating effects that it's having. It's just unraveling those connections that kept us all strong and kept us all in this together."

While the librarians are busy being kind, empathetic, and helpful, there is a long list of what LaTronica calls "library stuff" they are not doing instead.

"We're not reading book reviews," she said. "We're not ordering books. We're not assessing the collection. Sometimes we can barely check the books in. And we can't plan programs and do all the other wonderful things that the library can do."

Programs are very important, LaTronica said.

"What is going to save us is people coming together and not sitting at home on their own, attached to a computer screen," LaTronica said. "The great thing is that, in this community, we have so many people that want to contribute. They have skills and talents and interests that they'd love to share. And we just don't have time to do them all."

This is why LaTronica is putting into her budget for the next fiscal year a full-time program coordinator position.

"[Town Manager] John Potter got a grant for 1.75 municipal social worker positions that would be shared by all municipal departments," LaTronica said. "So the Gibson-Aiken Center can call if they have an issue, or whatever."

In developing a draft budget, which voters at Annual Representative Town Meeting will consider in March, Potter then boosted the hours those positions to an even two full-time positions.

"Which is fantastic," LaTronica said. "We would really appreciate that kind of coverage. And we would like a full-time program and outreach person."

At least once a day, LaTronica said, she receives requests or offers for programs but she has not got the time to develop them.

"They take a lot of work, for lack of a better word," she said. "To schedule, promote, and host the program and everything, and I just don't have time. So I'm missing all these opportunities because I'm scrambling constantly."

When LaTronica took over the library's management in 2016, "the board recognized this, and we were hoping to get a contract person to do it. But that doesn't really work. An outside contractor works on their own and is not supervised or a regular part of the library. What we really need is a person who is part of the library."

That position could be the key to bringing the community together, LaTronica said.

"Programs are what bring people together," she said. "And that's what's important, I think, in this community, and in all communities."

People meet people in the community that they wouldn't have otherwise known, she said, and they form connections.

"And what's more important than that?" LaTronica said. "I can't think of anything right now."

This News item by Joyce Marcel was written for The Commons.

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