Emilio Estevez directs and stars in “The Public,” a film in which homeless people take over a library during a cold night in Cincinnati. Photo submitted

CHECK THIS OUT: Libraries as safe spaces for the homeless

Anne DeGrace writes about an upcoming movie and talk focused on libraries and homelessness

By Anne DeGrace

There’s a new film that’s starting conversations about a problem that’s been around for far too long. The film is The Public, and the Nelson Public Library and Nelson at its Best are teaming up to bring it to our community on Tuesday, Oct. 1 at 7 p.m. The idea is for community members from all walks of life to see the film and then stay for a panel discussion that is certain to have all of us seeing things a little differently.

Homelessness, and all the challenges that go with it, is a collective problem that merits address at the highest levels. The reality is that instead of a solution on the grand scale, for those who experience homelessness it is a solution on a much more immediate scale: how do I get through today?

In the film The Public, a large group of people decides that when the Cincinnati Library closes for the day they won’t be leaving. The weather is brutally cold, the shelters are full, and the situation may be literally life or death. One librarian decides that enough is enough, and together they face misunderstanding and disinterest, not to mention a police standoff.

In a 2018 Toronto Star editorial, columnist Bob Hepburn discusses the film with regard to the Toronto Public Library (TPL). He writes about the obvious reasons why libraries are havens for those on the margins: they are free, safe, warm, you don’t have to buy anything, you can use the public computers or read as many books as you want, and you can stay all day provided you are not disruptive. It’s hard to think of any other public building with those attributes.

The TPL has gone further: they’ve hired a full-time social worker to help connect folks in need with help and resources. “It’s a bold move that signals the importance the Toronto library is placing on offering programs for the homeless and in training its entire staff to deal better with the needs of the homeless, such as helping them to find emergency shelter, food banks and clothing,” writes Hepburn.

Bold, but not out of character for libraries, which have long been connecting people with resources. Hepburn suggests that the TPL initiative may be copied by major libraries; I hope so. In Nelson, we are fortunate to have the Nelson Street Outreach Program through Nelson Community Services to offer a compassionate resource with a sound humanitarian principle; we are all humans, here.

That’s something that the film spotlights as we learn something of the stories behind the occupiers, stories as complex as the people, fully three-dimensionally human in their humour and empathy, frustration and anger.

The Nelson Public Library serves a broad swath of the community. We care that every library user feels respected, and that the library be a safe place for all. Occasionally, there are issues that challenge us that are directly related to the challenges some of our users face every day. Fortunately, there is help for librarians, too.

The Homelessness Training Institute has created a discussion guide relating to the film, and Ryan Dowd, the executive director of a homeless shelter in Chicago has written a book, The Librarian’s Guide to Homeless. The Nelson Library continues to work with our community partners on a regular basis, trying to be the best we can be in sometimes trying situations.

We all need to be part of this conversation. The screening of The Public is by suggested donation of $10 or more for those who can afford it; no one will be turned away. The panel, moderated by Nelson at its Best volunteer George Chandler, will be comprised of a representative from the library, a social service organization, law enforcement, and an individual with lived experience with homelessness. I hope you’ll join us.

Anne DeGrace is the adult services co-ordinator at the Nelson Public Library. Check This Out runs every other week. For library information go to nelsonlibrary.ca.

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