In spring 2021, a family of eight from Elgin, Illinois, found itself in trouble. One parent’s work hours had been reduced because of the pandemic, the other parent couldn’t work because of a high-risk pregnancy, and the family had fallen behind in rent, facing possible eviction from their two-unit apartment building. Help arrived, though, from what might seem like a surprising source—the local library.
In March 2021, Gail Borden Public Library District (GBPLD) received a grant contract from the Illinois Department of Public Health with a budget of up to $415,000 to create the Elgin Area Pandemic Assistance Team. Part of the department’s Pandemic Health Navigator Program, the project connects people with community and municipal resources that address pandemic-induced challenges.
The team gave the family money directly—through funds granted by the health department—to catch up on rent, which convinced their landlord to halt eviction proceedings.
“We found [eviction policies] to be a moving target, so no wonder people have trouble finding this stuff on their own,” says Martha Martinez, the team’s supervisor, who had previously worked with GBPLD on its census-related outreach. “We’re an overlay that supports [people] on a pop-up basis.”
A trusted resource
Many individuals and families in the US have faced similar hardships related to the economic fallout from the pandemic. In September 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) took the unusual step of issuing a moratorium on evictions for nonpayment of rent with the goals of slowing the spread of COVID- 19 and giving people breathing room after record rates of job loss. Though some state and local municipalities extended protections, the CDC moratorium expired on July 31, 2021, when the Supreme Court ruled not to extend it, leaving housing experts to fear an increase in eviction filings.
As of October 11, 2021, an estimated 8 million tenant households were behind on their rent in the US, according to the US Census Bureau’s experimental Household Pulse Survey. Black and Hispanic families are twice as likely to report being behind on their housing payments than white families, and many who go through eviction later have difficulty applying for credit, borrowing money, and finding housing.
That’s where some libraries have stepped in to help patrons facing eviction and its aftereffects.
GBPLD’s pandemic health navigators keep on top of the shifting landscape of assistance networks in the region northwest of Chicago. They connect with clients by phone or virtually, as needed, and they staff a table near the front door of GBPLD on weekday afternoons.
“They are ambassadors for the library—they are the first people [patrons] see,” says Denise Raleigh, division chief of public relations and development at GBPLD. “They are actually very good at promoting the library.”
The team has helped 1,500 people since its launch in March 2021 and has funding to continue through June. In addition to dealing with eviction issues, it assists with utilities payments, food needs, appointments for vaccines, and negotiating other pandemic-related setbacks and bureaucratic snarls.
“Most library staff are probably being asked [about] these things anyway,” Raleigh says. “We’re just taking it to the next level and providing the resources. We’re trusted, and we’re going to give people accurate information.”
Connecting with experts
Some librarians may hesitate to help with eviction and similar issues because they cannot necessarily offer legal advice, says Deborah Hamilton, strategic services librarian at Pikes Peak Library District (PPDL) in Colorado Springs, Colorado. She has experience with legal questions, however, as PPLD maintains a legal research collection that was formerly housed in its county courthouse.
“I’m always very upfront with people about what I can and can’t do,” says Hamilton, author of Helping Library Users with Legal Questions (Libraries Unlimited, 2021).
She works with a local legal aid organization to offer renters’-rights workshops that include information on what to do if you face eviction proceedings. She also presents at OCLC workshops on how libraries can help serve patrons in eviction situations.
Hamilton advises libraries interested in this work to partner with their area legal and housing experts.
“A lot of legal reference work is referrals or showing people how to get the information themselves,” she says, pointing out that for librarians, it’s more a question of information literacy than legal expertise: “I’m going to show you these things, and you have to determine what the answer is.”
Some patrons are frustrated when directed to another source, but by and large they are appreciative, Hamilton says, adding that her goal is to “get people one step forward.”
In Minnesota, Hennepin County Library (HCL) has been hosting expungement workshops to help people clear their records of evictions. It also offers sessions on criminal record expungement and credit repair.
“We are committed to removing barriers,” says Ali Turner, division manager for community engagement at HCL. “Those three things can limit people working when and where they want.”
The library works with Central Minnesota Legal Services (CMLS), which needed a partner in spreading the word on how the organization can help with evictions and a venue for connecting with community members. Workshops presented by CMLS attorneys cover renters’ rights, how to expunge an eviction, and costs associated with taking legal steps.
About 20–25 people attend each session, which HCL started offering monthly in a virtual format since fall 2020.
“Everything about it is [designed for] folks already working a couple jobs, having to arrange childcare, and so on,” Turner says. “Virtual programming also mitigates the stigma and the scheduling.”
She says that while the sunset of the federal moratorium may cause a bump in the demand for eviction-related support, library staffers expect the need for education and assistance to continue beyond the long tail of the pandemic.
“For a segment of our residents, this is always going to be an issue,” says Turner. “It’s connected to poverty. It’s connected to domestic violence. It’s connected to a lot of things. We’re super committed to continuing this as long as there is demand.”