Denver, CO

Denver library a lifeline for homeless

David Heitz

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This stunning building is the massive Denver Central Library.Photo/Denver Library

The Denver Library provides services to everyone, and that includes the city’s homeless population.

Not only do they provide an entire floor of computers which give people experiencing homelessness a way to look for job and stay connected to family and friends, but they also have social workers tucked in the corner.

The service was one of several featured Friday on City Councilman Chris Hinds’ weekly Facebook chat. His guest was Rachel Fewell, an administrator at the Central Library.

When I experienced homelessness due to untreated mental illness in 2019, I leaned heavily on the services the library provides. Councilman Hinds mentioned in the Facebook live chat that he grew up poor and his mother frequently took him to the library. I also was reared with the library in my life. It is a trusted institution.

That’s why it is so effective in providing homeless services. Their social workers can you help you get a new identification card, find clothes to wear, and much, much more.

Social workers provide support

When I first became homeless, I let things get pretty bad before I accepted I had no one and nothing. I remember spending a lot of time at the library because I wrote a blog about homelessness. I have since taken the blog down.

When I learned there were social workers in the corner of the floor with the computers on it, I reached out for help. At that time, I was locked out of my PayPal account due to a strange glitch. I had no access to a phone and no money; I was so manic I could not figure out how to unlock the PayPal account.

It was a Sunday and a social worker at the library named Sonja Falcon helped me. She showed incredible compassion, understanding, and patience. She got on the phone with PayPal, and although it took two hours, we figured out how to unlock my account again.

Library helps with PayPal glitch

She also wrote a letter explaining that I was unable to pay for a meal at a restaurant due to the strange glitch she discussed with PayPal. My card had been declined at a restaurant and I feared I would get into trouble. I was telling the truth when I said money was in the account, and Falcon vouched for me after the conversation with PayPal.

I suddenly had access to a couple of thousand dollars when I got into my PayPal account, and like a fool, I blew it in my manic state. I could have bought a bus ticket but where would I have gone? I had no intention of ever returning to Illinois, where I came from. I ended up going across the street to the Art Hotel for a few nights. I remember eating at Hard Rock Café and other nice places and handing out $20 bills to people experiencing homelessness.

The library continued to be a huge help to me for many months. They hooked me up with bus passes, tried to get me mental health appointments, told me where I could get clothes and much more. They hooked me up with shelter, too.

The library keeps statistics on the clients it serves. Thirty percent of its clients experiencing homelessness said the library is the only resource they use.

Fewell said the library is attractive to people because you don’t have to walk through a metal detector like in other public buildings. People experiencing homelessness carry everything they have with them, especially when shelters did not have storage. The library allowed homeless people inside, bags and all.

Banned from the library

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This sculpture decorates the lawn of the Denver Central Library.Photo/Library of Congress

I ended up eventually getting banned from the library. Someone had accused me of banging on the keys of a computer too hard and it turned into a shouting match.

Another time someone at the library gave me what they said was a marijuana joint. Marijuana is legal in Colorado. That’s not what I was, and I became extremely sick with severe chest pains. I was taken to Denver Health by ambulance. I was frightened and in a rage.

After that, I would go to the Caldwell African American Library to use the computer. But one day the Central Library security officer showed up and said I was banned from there, too. (I had been told by a federal authority that I could go to the Caldwell branch)

A social worker was going to allow me back into the library at one point. First, they wanted me to talk to a woman with a camera around her neck about what happened the day of the shouting match. I became very triggered by this. The other person started that whole thing and I felt bitter about being banned from the library. So, I walked out.

I hope to get things worked out with the library someday. It is a gem of a building, a whopping 540,000 square feet spread out over seven stories. I feel like I had a few friends there. I am embarrassed of how I sometimes acted and feel like I don’t even know that person. The right medication has changed my life.

Entire library getting a revamp

The library is under heavy construction. The first floor is open, but space is limited.

In addition to providing services to the homeless, the library also can link refugees to legal help. The library hosts English-language conversation groups for those attempting to learn English.

The library also helps businesses and students with research projects. The library owns expensive software that is available to use. Staff members can guide clients on how the software works and offer research tips.

Library construction is expected to last through next year. Fewell said the construction company has been ordering steel and glass well in advance to make sure there’s not a supply shortage.

New bathrooms, elevators and more

The library is so excited about renovating the bathrooms, they mention it twice on their website. The bathrooms had become the biggest problem at the library when I frequented it. People were shooting up drugs in every stall, on every floor. People would tell security several times a day that all the stalls were occupied with people shooting up. It became epidemic.

It will be interesting to see how the library solves this noticeably big problem. The other big problem at the library were the rickety elevators. Those, too, are being replaced.

A brand-new children’s library will open next year on the first floor. The entire library is getting a makeover due to a bond issue voters passed in 2017. It made $69 million available to renovate the main library and 10 of its 27 branches.

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I have been in the news business more than 30 years, spending much of my career at some of the best newspapers in the country. Today, I specialize in Denver local news, health reporting, social justice issues, addiction/recovery/mental health news, and topics surrounding homelessness and human trafficking.

Denver, CO
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