By Nona Tepper
Amita Health is looking to add a permanent, full-time licensed clinical social worker to the Forest Park Public Library.
"Librarians' skill sets are not necessarily trained to be able to identify someone in crisis, mental crisis, deescalate, and refer someone to resources," said Cody McSellers-McCray, executive director of community health for Amita.
"It lets us get to these other social issues that may be problematic for the community, because the community is like, 'Why are the homeless people here?' Educating people that this is a public space and [that] shelters close at a certain time."
Over the summer, the library acted as a host site for two students earning their master's at Loyola University School of Social Work, a partnership it pursued in response to the rise in people without homes using the library as a place to wash up, hang out or ask to be referred to social services. The partnership represented the first time a Loyola social work student had ever interned at a library. Amita learned about Forest Park's program and reached out in July about adding a permanent, full-time social worker to the site.
"They definitely helped the Forest Park library put systems in place, they definitely now have great systems, but it leaves a lot of gaps still," McSellers-McCray said, since the social workers were students who only interned at the library part-time. She said the addition of an Amita social worker would allow the library to provide further resources to patrons, educate the community on social issues and expand its referral list of support services.
"Through this partnership, we provide a technology platform that provides access in finding vetted, reputable resources by zip code," McSellers-McCray said, adding that the platform was a free mobile application.
Amita aims to fund the initiative through its Social Workers in Libraries program, which launched three years ago and has placed social workers in the Evanston Public Library and two Chicago Public Libraries. Initially, Amita provided the "start-up" funding to place an Amita social worker in the libraries, and later applied and received grant funding to sponsor libraries' social workers. McSellers-McCray said that Forest Park would likely follow a similar model, although Amita plans to submit a grant that could fund the social worker "soon." The library would not pay for the social worker.
"We are in conversations with Forest Park library, regardless of whether we get the grant, we're definitely planning on doing some work with them," she said.
McSellers-McCray said Amita hasn't identified an exact timeline yet for installing a social worker in Forest Park, but she estimated they wouldn't add a person before next year, since the library's renovation wouldn't be over until early January. The library will be open during regular hours during the interior renovation, which begins in early September.
Pilar Shaker, director of the Forest Park Public Library, said that the social worker would be with Forest Park on a year-to-year basis.
"One of the things we learned during our time with the social work intern on staff is that it takes time for her to build trust with people, and get to a point at which they feel comfortable talking and working with her," Shaker said, adding that having someone licensed on staff could go beyond simple referrals and check-ins.
"We view this as a real win-win," she said, adding: "We would be able to continue having a social work intern so we would really be expanding our reach between the intern and the [licensed clinical social worker]."
In Evanston, Amita's social worker has connected more than 650 people to tenants' support, immigration services, health care and homeless resources, according to Amita.
In Chicago, the two social workers provided one-on-one mental and behavioral health counseling, as well as provided educational workshops on health and wellness for the community.
McSellers-McCray noted that there was a "large population" of people without homes in Forest Park, and that library staff have also been trained in using Narcan—an opioid reverser—after finding drugs and needles in the bathroom. She added that the latest community health needs assessment completed by Rush University Medical Center and Loyola identified that mental health support was the "number one" need in Forest Park. She said the social worker would likely work with the library's security guard to solve issues.
"There's a big need for that because apparently a lot of the youth come from Maywood to Forest Park," McSellers-McCray said. "A lot of it is people who just need a safe space."
Last week, officials from Amita Health held two focus groups, one for community members and another for staff to identify what needs a social worker could fill in Forest Park. Shaker said residents were interested in receiving assistance in filling out paperwork for Medicaid, SNAP and subsidized housing.
"There was also discussion of our community's need for support and resources for single mothers and children in single parent households," she added.
Amita already operates several resources in the area, which could make connecting individuals to care easy, McSellers-McCray said. The hospital system operates a youth home across the street from the library. It also operates a homeless drop-in center in Westchester, where those without homes can wash up, receive new clothes and get a fresh meal. Amita also has a behavioral health center in Melrose Park, and has already stationed a social worker who works with the Forest Park Police Department.
"Oftentimes it's hard to draw people in for prevention work," McSellers-McCray said. "We want to meet them where they're at. They're at the library, public places, get them in and build trust and develop a relationship over time."