Pioneering a New Approach to Serving Customers without Homes

MLK Library Modernization Blog

Pioneering a New Approach to Serving Customers without Homes

Interview with Jean Badalamenti, MSW

During our discussions with community members about the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Library’s renovation plans, we have been hearing lots of feedback and ideas about how best to serve the needs of all the Library’s customers – including those without homes.
 
The Library’s mission is “to provide access to materials, information, programs and services that, when combined with expert staff, enables everyone to achieve lifelong learning, improving quality of life and helping to build a thriving city.” Yet some of D.C.’s more vulnerable residents – such as people living on the streets or behind bars, senior citizens, and immigrants whose first language is not English – may have unique needs and challenges related to library services.
 
So, the DC Public Library earlier this year created a new staff position charged with finding ways to serve such community members better. As of early May, the Library is one of the first in the country to employ a full-time social worker.
 
Meet Jean Badalamenti, a licensed social worker with more than 25 years of experience, who six months ago became the Library’s first health and human services coordinator. A graduate of Howard University’s master’s in social work program in the late 1980s, she has been living and working in Washington, D.C. ever since – advocating for people without homes or jobs, as well as those diagnosed with HIV/AIDS.
 
At the Library, Jean spends roughly half her time focused on customers without homes – including how to manage their needs during the MLK library’s upcoming renovation. In addition, Jean is coordinating efforts to open a library branch at the D.C. jail, which the City Council recently funded.
 
Jean understands why people without homes tend to gravitate to the central library and neighborhood libraries.
 
“The library’s a great place to spend the day for anybody,” Jean recently told a Washington Post reporter. “You get access to computers, you can look for jobs, connect with your family and friends on Facebook and e-mail, use [photo software] and do lots of creative things.”
 
What’s important, Jean stresses, is that every community member feels safe and welcome at the library. With that in mind, Jean explained the five main elements of her efforts to support customers without homes: 
 
  • Partner with human services organizations that provide meals, housing, outreach, case management and mental health services to individuals and families who are homeless – specialized services that the library does not provide.
  • Create new Library programs for customers without homes, such as storytelling, reading and writing workshops, podcasts, training, etc.
  • Provide training and resources to equip Library staff with information and skills to effectively serve customers without homes, including where to refer them for services.
  • Engage in citywide initiatives that address homelessness, such as participating in the Inter-Agency Council on Homelessness committee on Emergency Response and Shelter Operations.
  • Educate the community through open forums that explore causes and solutions to homelessness.
 As only the second social worker employed by a public library in the United States, according to Jean, she’s a bit of a pioneer. San Francisco’s public library, in partnership with the city’s public health department, hired a psychiatric social worker nearly five years ago to work one-on-one with individuals who don’t have homes, reaching out to them and managing a caseload.
 
Here in D.C., by contrast, Jean said her focus is the bigger picture. While recognizing that it is not the Library’s role to directly address or solve the city’s homelessness problem, she said, it does make sense for the Library to be part of – and sometimes initiate – community conversations about it.
 
“The library is a place for everyone to come regardless of whether you have a home or you don’t,” Jean said. “After the renovation, this will be true, too. Anyone is welcome in the library; it’s a public space. And we want people here who want to be here.”