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Library lifeguards: Volunteers of America buoy downtrodden

Published July 13, 2014 8:43 pm

Homelessness • Outreach workers help the homeless find service providers, jobs.
This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2014, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

It's a place to stay cool in the summer and keep warm in the winter. You can find help there if you're down and out. And everyone is welcome.

It's the Salt Lake City Library.

The library staff prides itself on service with books, periodicals, movies and more — including a children's library. Staffers also team with the Volunteers of America for another kind of service — helping the homeless and those who fear they are about to become homeless.

The VOA's three-member Library Engagement Team serves all of Salt Lake City's libraries but spends most of its time at the Main Library at 200 East and 400 South. And its members really get to know the clientele.

"If we see someone here a lot, we will talk to them and ask them if there is anything we can do," said VOA's Ethan Sellers. "We'll just walk up and say hi. You can't be shy."

Sellers and his team — Jen Page and Amanda Lee — direct patrons to service providers, where they can get clothing, food, medical care and even housing. They also supply information on a host of subjects, from how to seek employment to how to apply for Social Security.

Even the little things they do can be important to those who need it, like letting travelers use a phone to call home.

And when things get dicey, the team is there to "de-escalate" tension.

A little thing, like a man taking off his shoes — which is not allowed in the library — can quickly escalate into a showdown with security, staffers recalled of a recent incident. In that case, the VOA team was able to intercede and prevent violence.

"We do a lot of de-escalating. We sit down and engage with people," Sellers said. "If we can calm someone down who is erratic, it's good for everybody."

The VOA team is a "godsend" said library executive director John Spears.

"In the morning, there is no question that many people who walk into the library are homeless," Spears said. "The VOA relieves the staff from dealing with some situations we aren't trained for."

And the patrons get real help from the engagement team, he said.

"They don't just get a pamphlet. They get a person who can walk them through the process."

Among other things, the VOA team spends a lot of time helping people find jobs, Page noted.

"One man was illiterate and was looking for a job. We spent many hours with him filling out job applications," she recalled. "He was so excited. He came back one day and said, 'I got a job.' "

In another case, a Vietnam veteran came in the library who had been camping out for years, Sellers said. "He was unaware of any services."

The team helped him get I.D., clear up some minor matters with the courts and hooked him up with the V.A. — where he eventually got housing.

But much of the team's work can be less dramatic. Sellers took time Friday morning to help Thad Harman get a backpack and socks and give him ideas on a job search. Harman, 32, has been in Salt Lake City for a little over a year but says he's been homeless for many years.

He would like a job and a place to live. "But it's difficult to get employment," he said.

Harman likes spending time at the library for a number of reasons, including its ambience.

"When I first saw it, it looked like a big, gleaming snail," he said. "So, I thought it was cool."

Library patrons come from all walks of life and "have different needs," Lee explained. But they all have one thing in common: "They all need a place to call home."

csmart@sltrib.com