In his first month as the Oak Park Public Library’s newly created manager of community resources, Robert Simmons was just beginning the task of establishing the library’s new community outreach program.
That month was March and Simmons, a longtime youth interventionist with Oak Park Township, was able to put 18 patrons in touch with vital social services such as health care, housing and veterans’ issues.
But that was a little over a month before a man was found dead of a heroin overdose in a third-floor bathroom at the main library, 834 S. Lake St.
Simmons and OPPL Executive Director David Seleb were just beginning development of the program that would eventually replace security guards with staff emphasizing social work skills in an effort to better serve patrons in need of services.
But the April 11 discovery of Todd Leslie, 48, whom the Cook County Medical Examiner said could have been locked in the bathroom for four days or more, prompted Seleb to take immediate action.
The library director fired Allied Barton Security Services the day Leslie was discovered, and he fast-tracked the switch to a new model that provides security as well as social services.
Seleb said he’d been considering the switch since 2013, when the American Library Association formed a partnership with the Harwood Institute for Public Innovation to bring the institute’s model of community engagement to the attention of librarians across the country.
After attending the Harwood lab, Seleb returned to Oak Park and launched a series of community conversations to discover community priorities.
“What was important to our community was diversity, learning and education, community stewardship of various kinds — environmental and human resources — and we used the information we learned through those conversations to draft a new strategic plan for the library,” Seleb said.
The conversations also highlighted the need for a new model of safety and security that also addressed the information frequently sought by marginalized populations, such as the homeless, near homeless and youth.
“The thinking was that we as a library could be doing more for these individuals who are in our library and needing services all the time,” he said, reiterating that it’s “different than the model of a security guard standing at a desk and making sure only authorized people get in and out or like the lobby of a bank.”
The idea of libraries providing information about various social services has already popped up in San Francisco, Denver and Washington D.C., Seleb said, but the concept is still novel.
Leslie’s death, however, put the new model into motion, which not only included hiring Simmons but adding three safety and security staff members and a community and resource specialist. Stephen Jackson, who was terminated from his position as a youth advocate for Oak Park Township in 2015, was hired earlier this month to serve in the community and resource specialist position.
Simmons and Jackson’s positions are full-time and the three safety and security staff are part-time. All five will work across all of Oak Park’s library branches, Seleb said.
Simmons noted in a recent interview that part of his job is training librarians in how to appropriately engage with patrons who may need extra help.
Shortly after starting in the position, Simmons said he “met with every department and came up with a sound protocol of when to call me and how to engage with me. From there, 75 percent of my engagement came from staff members” reaching out to patrons and directing them to Simmons.
Word of mouth is spreading about the new model of engagement, he said, and those in need of services are beginning to seek out Simmons for help with various social services.
Simmons said patrons looking for paperwork on housing, health care, or any other need often are unaware of many of the social services available to them. With more than a decade of experience at the township, Simmons is highly trained in pointing people in need in the right direction.
In addition to providing a roadmap for patrons, he’s able to help keep them on track in accessing the services they need.
“There is a level of accountability to make sure [various social service entities] are working with patrons receiving services to make sure those systems are working,” he said, noting that he’s fighting recidivism when it comes to substance abuse, homelessness and other problems.
“Recidivism can be reduced when there’s a really sound strategy and a really comprehensive plan that’s introduced to that person to make sure they get what they need; this is the infrastructure I’m creating here now,” he said.
Word of the library’s work is spreading outside of Oak Park as quickly as it’s spreading among the library’s at-risk patrons. Already some 60 libraries have contacted him to find out how the program works.
“They’ve reached out to me saying, ‘We are struggling. We need some assistance. What are you doing? How are you building your program? What went into it?’ There are so many patrons who need continuums of care that we can’t provide … based off the library service delivery model” he said.