On a cold morning in late December, 46 people stand idle at the indoor entrance to the Toronto Reference Library on Yonge St. north of Bloor.
A sign taped to the door reads “Please keep this area clear for staff to enter.” Employees trickle in and skirt around the crowd waiting for the 9 a.m. opening.
A man in a shabby winter coat and construction boots sits against one of the exterior windows, trimming his moustache with a red-handled pair of scissors. Hunched over the metal book-return box, a woman carrying two overflowing canvas bags speaks quietly to herself.
Toronto’s libraries are designated warming areas during the winter, making them, especially downtown branches, hot spots for Toronto’s homeless population.
In September of 2018, the Toronto Public Library hired a full-time social worker. Their role includes developing programs and strategies that improve how Toronto’s libraries service the homeless and other vulnerable populations.
Pam Ryan, the Director of Service Development and Innovation for the Toronto Public Library, recognizes that this is a massive undertaking. There are more library branches in Toronto than there are in New York.
“We are one of the last public spaces where everyone is welcome. Where you don’t need to buy something to just be. Where you know you are safe,” Ryan said in an interview.
Toronto is not the first city that has looked to draw on the experience of social workers. Cities like San Francisco, Denver, and Brooklyn have similar programs.
The Edmonton Public Library has had social workers on staff for the past seven years.
As part of a pilot project aimed to reduce crime in Edmonton’s downtown area, the public library hired three social workers for a trial period of three years.
The project was such a success that the workers were brought on permanently.
According to Richard Thornley, manager of the EPL’s downtown branch, success was measured by a reduction in police calls, security incidents and improved outcomes for individuals that interacted with social workers.
Whether or not libraries should be providing these types of services is something that both Ryan and Thornley say they have been asked regularly.
“We have vulnerable and marginalized customers who are using the library every single day that we are open,” Thornley said. “From a community perspective, I think it makes a lot of sense to work with them in a space where they are comfortable and welcome.”
According to Ryan, “the best thing about public libraries is that they are available and open for everyone, and the most difficult thing about public libraries is that they are available and open for everyone.”
As Toronto moves completely into winter, the public library’s 100 branches shine as a beacon for anyone who needs somewhere to warm up.