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Bookmobile: When the library comes to the homeless shelter

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A mother named Jessica smiles as she fills out the forms to get her two children, 10-year-old Malik and 3-year-old Kennedy, their first library cards. (To protect families, some of whom are being sheltered from situations of abuse, only first names are used.)

Today the Queens mobile library has come to her, parking outside the family shelter where she and 254 other families now live. The colorful bus, filled with books, DVDs, and free Wi-Fi, stands tall as dozens of children play outside.

Little Kennedy is in the kids section, a huge smile on her face as she pulls out a book of numbers and shows it to her mom. “I see it, baby,” Jessica says to her daughter. “The girl, she sure likes numbers.”

It’s hard to really explain what this visit means, a mom named Denecia says. “For the families here, this is just something that makes us feel like we belong, or like, we’re just not alone,” she says. “When you can connect with people, and with something as simple as reading a book with your kids – I really appreciate the library folk being involved in connecting us to the world, even in this new world that many of us are in.”

New York

As Denecia and her 9-year-old daughter Elianna browse through the rows of books in this special branch of the Queens Library, both begin to beam.

She’s actually kind of “old school” when it comes to books, Denecia says. Ever since she was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, she found the local library a special place, an escape both from digital noise and some of the other tumult in her life. 

“I would read, sort of to escape, just to be still, and to get a hold on the world that I was around – and to learn about things I didn’t know,” she says. Over the years, she’s often brought her children to some of the grander libraries in New York City – especially those with engaging “kids centers,” as an alternative to video games and TV.

“I want them to be in awe when they go into the library, I want it to be an experience, so even if they go to a smaller branch, they’ll already have libraries on a pedestal in their minds,” Denecia says. 

Today’s library is particularly small. A combination of factors, including the loss of her job and the costs of finding child care, left Denecia and her two children, including her 6-year-old Elise, without a home over a year ago. Today the Queens mobile library has come to her, parking outside the family shelter where she and 254 other families now live.

There are 2,000 books, 100 videos, and free Wi-Fi in the bus-sized bookmobile, its librarians say. Depending on its destination, they often change the titles on board, adding Spanish-language resources or others when needed. Since 2016, the mobile library has served nearly 1,400 children and adults who reside in family shelters in Queens, signing residents up for library cards and helping them learn more about what the wider library system offers. The shelter here has made the day a festive affair, and dozens of children play just outside the mobile rows of books.

Harry Bruinius/The Christian Science Monitor

Denecia and her daughter Elianna browse the rows of books in the Queens Library’s bookmobile on Oct. 28, 2019. The library system’s mobile library tour this year has helped bring services to a number of the borough’s homeless shelters that serve mostly single moms and their children.

It’s hard to really explain what this visit means to her, Denecia says. “For the families here, this is just something that makes us feel like we belong, or like, we’re just not alone,” she says. “When you can connect with people, and with something as simple as reading a book with your kids – I really appreciate the library folk being involved in connecting us to the world, even in this new world that many of us are in.” (To protect the identity of families, some of whom are being sheltered from situations of abuse, only first names are used.)

Focus on outreach

Over the past decade, scholars and social workers have noted how public libraries around the country are particularly well-positioned to provide those without stable housing with the kinds of resources many take for granted, including computers and internet access, a dedicated place to think and work, and opportunities to learn.

“Libraries are always reinventing themselves, and what I love most about my job is connecting families to the library and to literacy,” says Kim McNeil-Capers, director of community engagement for the Queens Public Library system. “This is a way for us to bring the library right into the community – we can embed ourselves right here, right in the middle of a community, and talk to people directly.”

There were over half a million people without a stable home last year, according to federal estimates, and library systems in many U.S. cities have become more and more focused on serving their homeless patrons, sometimes partnering with social service organizations or even adding social workers to their staffs.

The Queens Mobile Library partners with social services agencies like Homes for the Homeless, hired by New York’s Department of Homeless Services. It operates the family shelter here near JFK airport, which is not only one of the biggest in New York, but the United States.

Mobile libraries aren’t new in New York, but the City Council provided the Queens branches with two new buses in 2016. Ms. McNeil-Capers helped organize a number of the outreach excursions to the mostly underserved residents in the sprawling borough, one of the most diverse places on the planet. 

The Queens Library Mobile Library makes stops with the Family Shelter Mobile Library Literacy Tour on Oct. 22, 2019 in Flushing, New York.

“When we got these brand new mobile libraries, we took them on a seven-day tour, and we went straight to schools, nursing homes, veterans’ homes, day care centers,” Ms. McNeil-Capers recounts. “We went to shelters, we went to parks, we went to beaches.”

In 2017, the mobile libraries went on an “Everybody’s Welcome Tour,” which focused on communities of immigrant families. Last year, the “It’s Time for Kind Tour” began to focus more on New York’s family shelters. This year, too, the “Mobile Library Literacy Tour” continued bringing books and other resources for the city’s homeless families, mostly single moms with children.

‘You could be a paycheck away’ 

A mother named Jessica is standing near the front of the mobile library, smiling as she fills out the forms to get her two children, 10-year-old Malik and 3-year-old Kennedy, their first library cards. 

Also a Brooklyn native, Jessica was living in Florida with her family three years ago when she flew back to New York for a family reunion. Malik, then 7, was struck and seriously injured by a car. Weeks of care in the hospital and a frustrating legal proceeding kept her in New York, and her family was unable to return home. It was the beginning of the many complications that left her and her children without a home, she says.

“People often don’t understand sometimes the difference between family homelessness and single adult homelessness,” says Linda Bazerjian, managing director of communications for Homes for the Homeless

“There’s a lot of different circumstances. Sometimes it’s just one hardship. You could be a paycheck away from being homeless. You might get injured, or have a huge dental expense, sometimes it’s domestic violence, and it’s hard to understand the trauma of these kinds of ordeals for the families here,” she says. “So one of the things that we like to do is provide a lot of resources that are on-site, to create a little bit of a community at the shelter.”  

Little Kennedy is in the kids section, a huge smile on her face as she pulls out a book of numbers and shows it to her mom. “I see it, baby,” Jessica says to her daughter. “The girl, she sure likes numbers.”

Staff members at the shelter have a routine in which they help pick up kids from the bus stop after school, and then take an hour to provide a small snack in the shelter. Staff members then provide another hour for homework help, before segueing into various educational programs. These include STEM activities, theater, and a communications club, where the children film and edit videos and create a hard-copy shelter newsletter. The shelter also has a youth basketball and flag football team, and a track club for girls.

“A lot of times our parents have so many appointments to keep, trying to get housing, going on a job interview, trying to get so many life issues underway, and then it’s difficult when you have to take care of your kids, too,” says Michael Chapman, director of after-school and recreation at the family shelter. 

“So I think the main thing is really the need for social and emotional learning and growth,” says Mr. Chapman. “A lot of the time, the parents, or anyone who winds up here, has been through an episode, some kind of situation.”

Denecia and Elianna took out a few books from the mobile library, and later on Jessica proudly held up the two new library cards she just received for Kennedy and Malik. They were part of a group of 80 residents at the bookmobile today – 16 of whom signed up for a library card.

“I can say now, after all these really hard years, we’re doing so much better,” Jessica says. She’s working to get certified as a security officer, she says, and the shelter provides her with a mentoring program in which she works with security officers stationed here.

“Malik’s crazy about the sports, and he’s an All-American here,” she says with a laugh. “That’s what I really like about it, they make it all about the kids, and help you get back on your feet.”



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