Reaching Out to the Unsheltered

How peer navigator programs can help libraries address homelessness

June 24, 2019

Jean Badalamenti (at podium) and other panelists

During “Conversation Starter: Program Models for Peer Navigator Outreach to People Experiencing Homelessness and other Life Challenges,” a program held June 24 as part of the American Library Association’s 2019 Annual Conference and Exhibition in Washington, D.C., a panel of library social workers and administrators discussed peer navigator outreach programs and how they can help libraries, communities, and patrons experiencing homelessness.

The panel comprised Jean Badalamenti, health and human services coordinator for D.C. Public Library Programs and Partnerships; Nick Higgins, Brooklyn Public Library chief librarian; Kevin King, Kalamazoo (Mich.) Public Library head of branch and circulation services; Leah Esguerra, San Francisco Public Library and San Francisco Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing social worker and social service team supervisor; Elissa Hardy, Denver Public Library community resource manager; and two peer outreach specialists from D.C. Public Library, Ellery Lampkin and Jerome Thomas.

Panelists shared their insights on the key elements that make their programs succeed. Most often, they stressed the importance of finding community partners to help further mission objectives.

Peer Navigators/outreach specialists are trained by community organizations and contracted out to libraries. Often, a library staff member will supervise and check in with the specialists to ensure they are on track and help them avoid burnout.

Thomas spoke emphatically about why he loves his work and how he feels that he is able to support patrons experiencing homelessness in ways that library staff may not be able to, because he has experienced the issue himself. “Customers want someone to listen, and space for them to explain what they are going through,” he said. The people he helps may have lost everything, and he can often assist them in obtaining their birth certificate, social security number, and identification card. For patrons experiencing homelessness, he said, “Every day is a challenge. I feel very satisfied to share space with them.”

Lampkin became a peer outreach specialist because he “saw a lot of misrespect on the streets, and saw people being disrespected, and also disrespecting themselves.” He talked about how he tries to take care of people—and how that reminds him to take care of himself.


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