The Library’s Novel Approach To A Crisis

Homeless people seeking shelter under large books
Illustration by Curt Merlo
Illustration of homeless seeking shelter under large books
Illustration by Curt Merlo

BRADLEY came to the main branch of the Indianapolis Public Library this fall seeking shelter. They had been sleeping in the park across St. Clair Street, and they were cold and wet. They carried bags filled with their belongings. The two hoped the library might have some ponchos. Yanna McGraw was behind the desk in the atrium when she saw them come in. “Do you need help?” she said. 

“You’re a caseworker, aren’t you?” Patty asked.

“How’d you know?” McGraw said.

“I know a caseworker when I see one,” Patty replied.

Patty pauses as she retells the story, and says as an aside, “I know that sounds bad.”

McGraw was happy to be recognized, though. She is, in fact, a social worker, hired by the library in July to handle the influx of homeless, mentally ill, drug users, and others in crisis who come in every day needing help that librarians—as superb as they are at solving problems—are unequipped to handle.

Library management decided last year to trade a librarian’s position to get a social worker, bumped up the salary from the low 40s to high 50s, and found McGraw after a nearly yearlong search. She brought with her a Master of Social Work degree and experience working with veterans in a geriatric clinic, with the Department of Child Services, and in a hospital’s behavioral health unit. She also brought a deep desire to make a difference and the knowledge that problem-solving work like this is a long, difficult slog.

“I’m not a miracle worker,” she says. “I’m here to connect them to resources.”

Robin Kelley, manager of central adult services, has been with the library just short of three decades. In her early years there, the number of people in distress was “nothing like this,” she says. In the 1990s, a few homeless people would come in because the library was, and still is, one of the few safe, welcoming places where they can use a computer or find a quiet place in the stacks to hide away for a few hours. But in recent years, library staff have seen a lot more people screaming at the top of their lungs and others who overdose in the bathroom. People shoot heroin in public places, Kelley learned, so that if they overdose, there’s someone to rescue them.

The San Francisco Public Library pioneered the idea of a full-time, library-based social worker in 2009. Today, about three dozen public libraries across the United States have them. For years, Indianapolis’s Central Library had an unofficial representative to handle that kind of assignment: a public service associate named Joan Harvey who worked at the information desk and had been with the library system since the 1980s. (When COVID hit, she retired and became a street outreach worker.) “She was so good at spotting people, talking to them, and getting them to open up,” Kelley says. But there were limits to what she could do or offer for help.

In 2018, two interns and a specialist from the IU School of Social Work came to the library to collect data about patron needs. They came up with the top five: financial help, food, housing, transportation, and hygiene. Kelley remembers the social worker saying repeatedly, “I’ve never seen this in my career, the number of people who are desperate to find housing, desperate to find a job.” The report that followed established the critical need for a dedicated social worker at the library.

Creating the position took longer than expected, though not, Kelley says, because of the resignation of CEO Jackie Nytes, who stepped down in August following allegations of racism and discrimination. COVID and finding the right person were the primary reasons.

[pullquote align=”left” caption=””]”Yesterday, I had a woman with hallucinations and delusions who had been released from the hospital an hour before,” McGraw says. “I know this young lady needed more help.”[/pullquote]

McGraw is based in a fourth-floor office with giant windows overlooking newly constructed, high-end apartments. The walls are pale blue and bare. There’s a table and four chairs. She logs little time there, preferring to be visible in the atrium, where she spends at least four hours a day, four days a week, seeking out people who appear to need help. What she has seen so far are a lot of SMIs—severely mentally ill. Lots of homeless.

Her first big push has been to bring resources to the library. “We’ve got to get everybody to come to where the need is,” she says. “And not just the Central Library, but the branches as well.” Some of that was already taking place when she arrived, like the Emergency Broadband Benefit program, which provides phones to people struggling to pay for one. Other providers, like the Damien Center, are now sending representatives to the library to provide harm-reduction information, which could mean anything from sunscreen to Narcan training for treating a drug overdose. More providers will follow, McGraw says. And while she might not be able to provide a bus pass yet to help people get to appointments (they’re scarce, and she has no budget), she can make a phone call to places like Horizon House, which can assist with shelter, food, and clothing.

McGraw has connections with mental health providers, too. And yet, sometimes you can have all the connections in the world and still come up empty. “Yesterday, I had a woman with hallucinations and delusions who had been released from the hospital an hour before,” she says. “I know this young lady needed more help, but I just couldn’t get her to where she needed to get to. She left here, and she’s still floating around with those issues. That’s the most disheartening part—I don’t have a solution for that. But even though she was delusional yesterday, I was present with her. Maybe that little seed will bring her back. I don’t make any promises. I do what I can do.”

In the case of Patty, 43, and Bradley, 40, McGraw saw the seed germinate a few weeks after she made the first contact. They returned to the library to tell her they were close to securing housing on the far-west side. Next, they needed to figure out the bus system.

McGraw told them that because Patty was a client of Cummins Behavioral Health Systems, she was eligible for a half-price bus pass. She printed out the form they needed to get that discount. For the next 35 minutes, she talked to them about their housing situation, whether the new house was in a safe area and how to research that, how to assess a bus route using IndyGo’s website, problems Patty had getting the bus pass she had to work. McGraw told them she’s at the West Indianapolis library branch every Tuesday from 3 to 6 p.m., so “I’m a resource that you can still utilize even after you’re housed.” They left looking relieved.

“This here is the first library I’ve ever seen that is so welcoming,” Patty says. “It’s a good thing to have—some kind of resources for someone that doesn’t know what they’re doing, that needs help, don’t know where to go. Every library in every county should have this.”