The Bangor Public Library is a prime place to see how the city’s homeless population has grown since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Since it reopened to the public in April 2021, the Harlow Street facility increasingly serves as a de facto day shelter where those experiencing homelessness can stay safe, escape the elements, and use computers and the bathroom without having to buy anything.
As it’s served that purpose for more people, however, library staff have encountered more patrons misbehaving and mistreating staff, prompting calls to police to address disruptive behavior and a handful of drug overdoses.
Now, the library is preparing to hire a social worker to work with homeless patrons and connect them with services they need, whether housing, food, employment or mental health and addiction treatment. The library also plans to add an employee to keep a closer eye on patrons in areas of the library that largely go unmonitored. And it’s planning an upgrade to its security system to help with that task.
The hires and security upgrade will be possible as the city of Bangor dispenses the first awards from its more than $20 million in COVID relief funds that it received from the federal government last year. The $241,000 award to the library was among four to community organizations that the city council approved Wednesday night, when it signed off on spending a total of $1.7 million.
The library will use another $100,000 in COVID relief funds awarded by Penobscot County, which received $29.5 million from the federal government last year.
The awards will fund the positions for two years, library director Ben Treat said.
As the library reopened last year following its yearlong pandemic closure, staff dealt with some agitated patrons, conflicts and misbehavior, Treat said, but they noticed a shift at the start of 2022.
Since January, more people experiencing homelessness, with untreated mental illnesses or substance use disorder, have broken library rules and screamed at and threatened others, usually library staff.
The library has asked police to issue 35 criminal trespass orders so far this year to prevent disruptive patrons from re-entering, Treat said. Before the pandemic, the library asked police to issue one to five criminal trespass orders each year.
Bangor police have responded to 59 calls from the library since April of this year, about half of which involved at least one person identifying as homeless, police spokesperson Sgt. Jason McAmbley said. The majority of those calls were for welfare checks, though six resulted in arrests and one was for a drug overdose for which officers administered the overdose reversal drug naloxone.
The library has seen five overdoses since its first in November 2021, according to Treat, leading the library to close some single-stall bathrooms to prevent people from overdosing alone and not being found.
“We’re at a point now where we need a social worker in the library to help manage some of the behaviors we’ve seen and help refer people to the resources that are available in the area,” Treat said. “We’re looking for a way to support this population that uses the library while also making the best environment possible for everyone who wants to use the library.”
In addition to connecting patrons in need with help, the social worker will guide staff trainings on de-escalating conflicts, Treat said.
While the social worker position will be new to the Bangor library, similar roles already exist at libraries in other larger cities, including Portland.
Ann Price, one of two community resource coordinators at the Portland Public Library, works on a team tasked with directing library patrons to services they might need. Price and her team either respond to calls from library staff who encounter someone who needs help or connect with people they meet at the library.
On an average day, Price said, she and her team direct up to five patrons to local resources, such as places where they can get a free meal or spend the night.
People experiencing homelessness often gravitate toward libraries because they’re generally among the only places in a community where they can spend long periods of time sheltered from the elements without needing to pay, Price said.
Library patrons are also treated equally, can remain anonymous and have access to the same resources regardless of their circumstances, she said.
“Folks who are in crisis tend to have a lot of data on them out in the world, especially if they’re staying in shelters or accessing emergency support,” Price said. “Once they enter a library, they have more of an option to be seen as a patron. If there are things they’re curious about, they can access educational materials and be in a space that feels a little more humanizing.”