Person silhouetted by bright window with bookshelves on either side of them

Photography By Giulia Squillace / Stocksy

Public libraries offer books, shelter and much more

Toronto Public Library’s first full-time social worker highlights the much-needed resources they provide to the community

Visit any branch of any library, and you’re likely to find fellow patrons who are there for more than just books. Libraries are free, warm and safe, which means they can be a haven for people who are experiencing homelessness. In fact, Toronto Public Library (TPL) has seen a steady uptick in patrons seeking shelter over the past few years, which is part of the reason they hired their first-ever full-time social worker, Rahma Hashi, in August 2018.

Hashi’s job is to make sure TPL’s programs are accessible to everyone, and to create connections between all of the organization’s patrons. “Some people might say, ‘Why is the library talking about social services?’” she says, “not seeing the link between social justice and the access to information and democracy that’s happening at the library.”

A typical day for Hashi consists mostly of working with community partners and researching best practices so librarians can help TPL’s most vulnerable patrons. Staff are able to “look up emergency shelters or related services, find a local food bank or refer [patrons] to community organizations that can provide a wide range of services, including health, mental health and addiction.”

Hashi doesn’t often work directly with patrons, but a librarian’s recent experience highlights the need for her role. “One of our branches worked with a woman experiencing homelessness last summer,” she explains. “She was sleeping in the garden area of the branch and the staff connected her with Streets to Homes to find her a space in the shelter system. They also contacted a community agency, which provided her with food and clothing. A few weeks later, [the patron] came into the library and asked for help [with her] résumé.” This is the kind of long-term relationship that Hashi is focused on helping TPL staff build with their clients.

In addition to the social-services connections Hashi is developing, TPL’s 100 branches are home to tons of free programming and resources. They encourage literacy (of course), but they also help newcomers get settled, provide support to people experiencing poverty and so much more. Here are five of our favourite ways libraries are making a difference in communities across the city. (Not in Toronto proper? Other GTA library systems, such as those in Mississauga and Markham, offer similar programming, so check out their websites.)

1Settling in Toronto

TPL is an excellent resource for newcomers to Canada. This program in particular connects people with an in-house settlement worker, who can help them find a job, learn English and even get a driver’s licence. Not every branch has a settlement worker, so check ahead for availability.

2Personal Finance Programs

TPL has more than 100 programs that can help with personal financial literacy, on a range of topics from savings strategies to debt solutions to understanding disability tax credits. Experts host the free sessions, which vary from branch to branch.

3Bookmobiles

TPL has two bookmobiles that travel around the city to almost 30 locations, including shelters. “They are able to do on-site card registrations and programming,” says Aly Velji, TPL’s manager of adult literacy services. “It’s great to expose the whole family to everything we have to offer, and allow them to sign out books on site.”

4Book a Librarian

Librarians are some of the smartest, most resourceful people you’ll meet. Through this program, you get one all to yourself for 30 to 60 minutes, and they can help you with everything from researching a pet project (perfect for seniors who may be craving company!) to crafting a résumé to navigating Microsoft Word.

5Museum + Arts Pass Program

This might just be our favourite under-the-radar offering. Sign out one of these passes with your adult library card, and you and your family suddenly have access to cool attractions all over the city—like the Aga Khan Museum, Black Creek Pioneer Village and the Toronto Zoo—without paying entrance fees. “I know many families have not heard of this,” says Hashi, but it’s ideal for “families experiencing financial hardships,” who may not be able to afford admission for the whole family.

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