City aims services at a place that’s already an unofficial refuge for the homeless -- the Loussac Library

When you live on the street, a public library can be a sanctuary.

Walk into the Loussac Library in Midtown Anchorage on a cold day and you can see just how true it is, said adult services librarian Sarah Preskitt. The homeless do the same things everybody else does at the library: Read books and newspapers. Go online. Charge cellphones.

All that is fine, Preskitt says.

But the presence of many vulnerable people who may suffer from health problems, addictions and mental illness can tax staff who are trained in library science, not counseling or social work.

On any given day, Preskitt estimates that between 30 to 50 people who seem to be homeless or living on the margins spend time there. More when the weather is bitter cold or it's pouring rain.

Now the city is trying a cutting-edge approach to the issue: For the first time, they will station a social worker inside the library to help some of the Anchorage's most vulnerable in a place they're already frequenting.

"The answer is not to say, you don't meet our standard of what a library patron is," Preskitt said. "Our mission is to provide resources to the community. It's important to me to do that. This is a win-win for everybody."

Librarian George Felder has been working at the Loussac since 2004. Homeless people have always spent time there, he said. Some people arrive as soon as the library opens and leave when it closes. But these days, people seem more desperate.

"They are in more disrepair than previously," he said. "More who are really down and out."

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The library has a security staff to help librarians enforce rules against eating, sleeping, bathing or attempting to do laundry in restroom sinks. They occasionally field complaints from patrons who say they are being made uncomfortable by other people in the library. And they have to kick out people who are using drugs or alcohol, or who are drunk or high.

Patrons are generally well-behaved and left alone, Felder said. But sometimes people in crisis require a call to police.

Between the beginning of 2015 until mid-June, police responded to the Loussac Library at 3600 Denali Street more than 200 times, according to data from the Anchorage Police Department. Most of those calls were for complaints that turned out to be nothing. But there were incidents like one in which a man said he wanted to be killed "by a beam and judged by God," according to police reports. And one in October, where a "heavily intoxicated man" trying to fight had to be taken away by police.

Preskitt says the solution is to offer help, not to profile or restrict people using a public facility.

Enter Rebecca Barker, who is earning a master's degree in social work at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Starting in August or September, she will be responsible for connecting vulnerable people who frequent the library to services that can improve their quality of life and get them off the streets, using an approach known as "trauma informed care."

Barker worked on a major study of Karluk Manor while earning an anthropology undergraduate degree. The experience of talking with people who had spent years or decades homeless led her toward a graduate degree in social work, she said.

The plan is for Barker to rove the floor rather than sit in a tucked-away office.

The pilot program shouldn't cost the city anything initially, said Melinda Freemon, the director of Health and Human Services for the municipality. Barker will intern as part of the requirements of her master's degree. There are also plans to move an outreach worker from the city's services for the disabled and aging into the library, in an effort to better connect with clients in a place where they may already be spending time. If the pilot program, expected to run from August until April, is a success, the city might pursue a grant to continue it in the future, Freemon said.

Loussac librarians say the last thing they want to do is deter people who are on the margins already from coming to the library.

Even if someone sleeps on cardboard, they should still have a place they can go to listen to symphonic music and read Shakespeare if they want to, Felder said.

“Whatever your status is, there’s a place you can come and continue dreaming and doing those things that make you feel human,” he said.