Oak Park Library hires social worker

New position to work with at-risk and homeless patrons

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By Timothy Inklebarger

Staff Reporter

Homeless people sleeping in the corner, teenagers who don't seem to be using the library for anything other than hanging out in front of the facility entrance. They're topics occasionally broached at public meetings, but nothing ever seems to change.

Not anymore, says David J. Seleb, executive director of the Oak Park Public Library.

The library has created a new position that aims to address the needs of those so-called at-risk and other marginalized patrons and, in doing so, enhance the experience for all library goers.

The library recently hired Robert A. Simmons, an experienced social worker who's worked as an interventionist in the Youth Services Division at Oak Park Township to fill new the position of manager for community resources.

"He's done this work for Oak Park for many years; we're fortunate to have someone who already understands our objectives and the community's objectives," Seleb said.

Simmons starts the position on March 7, according to a press release.

Seleb described Oak Park as a welcoming community, and he said Simmons' job will be to "help make sure Oak Park Public Library is a welcoming place for all while also making sure our library spaces are safe and secure for all our patrons and staff."

Seleb acknowledged that he and library staff get complaints from patrons about youths hanging out in and around the building and homeless people at the library, but he said the goal for Simmons is to address those issues before they become a problem.

The library pays AlliedBarton Security Services to provide security for the facility. The security guards basically make sure patrons are abiding by the library rules and are not disrupting others.

Seleb said it is uncertain if the security service will continue at the library once Simmons has had some time to settle into the position.

The library noted in a press release that the innovative approach to policing the library and providing services to marginalized patrons is being tried in a handful of communities across the nation – Denver, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

Seleb said in the press release that as a youth interventionist, Simmons has worked with numerous Chicago-area service providers, including Oak Park School District 97 and Oak Park and River Forest High School District 200, the village of Oak Park and the Park District of Oak Park.

The library also has partnerships with organizations such as the Oak Park Consortium to End Homelessness, Prevail and Housing Forward, Seleb said, adding, "Rob is going to help us continue to strengthen those bonds."

Simmons holds a master's degree in social service administration from the University of Chicago and a bachelor's degree in human organizational development from Vanderbilt University.

CONTACT: tim@oakpark.com

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Urantia Starsteed  

Posted: March 4th, 2016 11:50 AM

I just wanted to clarify that when I mention disruptive people to the clerks, they DO take action but once I actually said: "Don't you hear that?!" Totally noisy and they seemed oblivious.

Urantia Starsteed  

Posted: March 4th, 2016 11:49 AM

Jenna, I agree with you. But just to let you know, I have mentioned the unruly teens to librarians/clerks on various floors and there doesn't seem to be much interest in actually maintaining the quiet. As for the security guard, haven't they gotten rid of them? I really don't think they addressed the crux of the problems but they DID tell me not to sit in the vestibule once, among other things. I think the larger issue here is why the Main Library is morphing into a community center rather than dedicating some other building for that particular purpose.

James Hall  

Posted: March 4th, 2016 10:22 AM

Yeah Mike! How dare anyone criticize the government!

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 10:29 PM

Mike - I take off on must Sundays.

Mike Hanline  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 4:27 PM

Does a day go by when Oak Park's unofficial chapter of the Tea Party doesn't have something negative to say about the governance of Oak Park?

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 3:29 PM

Jenna's post is a "Must Read." She writes clearly that the issue is not about bias against the homeless or the need for more public compassion. Jenna's view is a question that is simple and focused. Her question is: Why expand the library's role at the expense of public and private charities that already provides a wide range of assistance that is administered by trained, dedicated volunteers? Her point is that it is always smarter to expand what exists rather than creating a new course.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 1:26 PM

Jenna's post is a "Must Read." She writes clearly that the issue is not about bias against the homeless or the need for more public compassion. Jenna's view is a question that is simple and focused. Her question is: Why expand the library's role at the expense of public and private charities that already provides a wide range of assistance that is administered by trained, dedicated volunteers? Her point is that it is always smarter to expand what exists rather than creating a new course.

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 12:18 PM

Great points Jenna. The goal of the library is stated as doing something to help people. What the REAL goal is looks more like a public "servant" group adding staff, creating more job security for themselves and more salaries by people who are managing all that staff. Look for an announcement soon that there is a "crisis" at the library and they need to increase taxes "just" $400 per year per taxpayer to cover it all.

Jenna Brown Russell  

Posted: March 3rd, 2016 11:18 AM

I realize I am late to comment, but this decision has been on my mind. While I laud the intent, this is exactly the big government, poor execution that is sinking this state. When I frequent the library, many of the homeless I encounter are frequent guests at PADS. To stay in the shelter, you need an ID. Each one of these individuals are paired with a Housing Forward case worker. HF is a social service provider experienced and focused on finding permanent housing solutions for those that desire it (not all of the shelter clients do). Why the library thinks they can be more successful than a focused, trained group with access to many services is beyond me. More importantly, this new tax payer funded public position takes precious resources away from the private and public/private charities that are focused on homelessness v. an organization focused on books, story hour, dvd's AND homelessness. We do this over and over again...extend the reach of government into areas where they are in no way the most efficient, nor effective, nor accountable deliverer of services. As for disruptive teens, dealing with them should be on security, library personnel and every darn adult in Oak Park. Badly behaving children need to be censured by society and corrected by grown-ups, preferably including their parents.

Jason A. Evans  

Posted: February 21st, 2016 5:54 PM

Coming from the POV of someone who has worked in as a child welfare and mental health provider, I can only applaud the decision to recognize that the library is a point of access for those who may need assistance. Services should meet the recipients "where they are" both physically and in terms of resource needs. If the board has determined that the library is a good place for those introductions and interactions to occur, more power to them, and I hope the provider hired is successful at recruiting resources beyond the library for those in need. However?. The fact is that these kind of helping interactions take time, should occur in an at least semi-private area for the sake of the individual's comfort to share and to protect any privileged health or legal information from being requested in an open forum. And while this is occurring, the worker will not be patrolling any other part of the library. Also, when someone does not wish to receive services, refuses to leave, or is belligerent ?" will they respond to the worker? Will the worker be required to assist in removing disruptive patrons - which is not conducive to building the relationships the worker will need to have. I will confess to ignorance regarding the procedure for significantly disruptive individuals now. Will this move additional burdens to the OPPD for response? The town co-locating service outreach with the library may be a very good idea. Removing security simultaneously is not. Perhaps a social worker and a community service officer from OPPD, trained in assisting with social and mental health issues if you don't like the idea of private security? Just my two cents.

Moe Kaye  

Posted: February 15th, 2016 4:10 PM

Can't we leave Peyton out of this? I don't see how his alleged bad behavior has anything to do with the OP library.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 15th, 2016 3:29 PM

Related to Manning?

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 15th, 2016 3:13 PM

@ Jim Petersoj: "her"? Why does a social worker have to be a "her".

Jim Peterson  

Posted: February 15th, 2016 2:15 PM

Maybe the naysayers would be happy if the library hires a social worker but gives her a couple of assault weapons, a ton of ammo and some NRA nonsense to pass out to the kids.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 12:11 PM

One of the issues with bad behaving guests at the library is that they feel that their occasional visit gives them the right to tell residents how they should live. Serena - We don't!

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 10:01 AM

Serena - one of the issues with bad behaving guests at the library is that they are very close to your children and other people's children. So keep your guard up when visiting because the library is hiring social workers instead of guards. If the problematic guests were diligently seeking jobs on the internet, this article would never have been written.

Serena Eng Suranyi from Fremont  

Posted: February 14th, 2016 9:25 AM

Tom M. I grew up in Oak Park and love to bring my young son to the OPPL when we visit my parents. The ""no card no entry" rule you suggest is ridiculous. Libraries have always been for "the public". Access to computers could be exactly what "the marginalized population" need to look for jobs and get their life back on track.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 9:54 PM

Will all of the OP Libraries have Social Workers?.

Robert Zeh from River Forest   

Posted: February 13th, 2016 4:53 PM

I think having a social worker at the library is a worthwhile experiment, but it doesn't look like the library set out what would constitute success in, say, a year's time. That being said, this effort should be coming out of the township, not the library. The township has expertise and experience with social work. The library does not.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 2:02 PM

J- you created a question for me. Will the branch libraries also have a social worker?

J.Martin Konecki  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 1:54 PM

Since we are on the subject of the main branch of the Oak Park Library, my question is where are the boundaries for the library? Signs posted says no smoking on Library property. Im not sure what the park district's rules are pertaining to smoking but many times when we visit the library there are people smoking ON LIBRARY property. The crazy part is sometimes its not legal substances they are smoking and sometimes its right by the front door for me and my children to witness and smell as we enter!!!!

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 10:26 AM

This is a behavior issue. Dealing with bad behavior by some people. Its not a homeless issue until the library - the director or the entire board - decides they are somehow going to start trying to fix all the world's problems by hiring people to deal with homelessness. That is not their job. We all should start the process to pull funding from them if that is what they want to start doing, then they can create a new organization and build a shelter somewhere else. Now that we have a guy on the staff whose job depends on having homeless around that he can deal with, he is very likely to want to try and find more of them to deal with, which would seem to be the exact opposite way of solving the bad behavior in the library problem.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 8:55 AM

OP Council of Churches - For the sake of those who are not religion maniacs, maybe giving the library to the Council is the better route. We really don't need a library building anymore!

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 8:48 AM

This is not a fight worth fighting. The Library Board will do whatever it wants. Fact is that computers in the library has loads of ways for residents to get books, films, etc. without going to the library. I am tired of having to listen to the homeless snoring. I will choice to get my books electronically.

Brian Slowiak  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 8:09 AM

Since the new brew pub at Lake and Austin is supported in part by village funds, will the "marginalized" guests of the library be told that they are welcomed at the pub to nurse their beer for a couple of hours and take in a televised ball game?

Jim Egeberg  

Posted: February 13th, 2016 7:34 AM

Tom; I'm pretty sure this was a board decision, so I find your criticism of the Director puzzling. Butch, rather than question, do you have a better idea? The fact is that this has been an issue for ages for the Library and is worthwhile. I'd like to see the OP Council of Churches become involved with this project.

Jontisha Graves from Oak Park  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 8:00 PM

God forbid some of us find ourselves "marginalized" at some point in life where the comfort, quiet and warmth of a public library are an answered prayer to shield us for a just few hours from the harsh elements outside. The world is becoming more subhuman than ever. Whether this solution works or not, I'm grateful they are trying something. ??

Tom MacMillan from Oak Park  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 6:49 PM

What we need is a new Director at the Library, not a new "interventionist". Citizens of Oak Park have been complaining because the director has done a poor job dealing with bums sleeping on the premises. Somehow he interprets that as a need to hire yet another extra fancy staff member, probably for $100k a year? This is how our property taxes go up and up endlessly. Next we'll hear about how the new staffer needs a staff of his own to work with the "patrons". It's a library, not a social experiment or shelter. How about - no library card, no entry to the building -- with existing security manning the door. Problem solved. But that would make too much sense.

David Gulbransen  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 11:28 AM

"For years the library has been the village's compassionate alternative and it has not worked. " How has it not worked? The OPPL is an incredible community resource and one of the best public libraries around. I think they have done incredible work in our community, and this is another example of forward thinking an innovation that makes libraries more than just a repository of books. I'm glad that OPPL is continuing to be a great part of OP!! (Although, I would still keep the security officers, too.)

Christos Haralambidis  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 10:59 AM

Nothing that a Tazer? wouldn't fix. Seriously?!?!

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 9:47 AM

RoseMary Gange "I am grateful that the library is trying this compassionate alternative." For years the library has been the village's compassionate alternative and it has not worked. How will having a social worker benefit the homeless while providing residents with a more comfortable and quiet reading experience?

Kathy Wyman  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 9:30 AM

This strikes me as a great & innovative idea--all except the part about ditching the security guards. The social worker won't have a magic wand. I've seen random altercations crop up between patrons who wouldn't necessarily be among those identified as potential users of social worker's services, and these create a lot more discomfort/disruption for other patrons than the presence of folks sleeping in chairs & minding their own business.

RoseMary Gange  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 9:28 AM

Every city with a homeless population has those fellow human beings in their libraries. I am grateful that the library is trying this compassionate alternative. Utah has solved their homelessness problem. Illinois needs to step up.

Reshma Desai  

Posted: February 12th, 2016 7:45 AM

This is a wonderful idea and a sign of an advanced and caring community. Communities should provide support not punishment. This can be done while still ensuring that other patrons have the full use of the library. I love our library. I love Oak Park.

German Chavez from Oak Park  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 9:42 PM

One of The worst and saddest thinks is to see some teens smoking weed and peeing in the parking lot on my building (169N Grove). Or just sitting in the park benches cursing or making out.

Gina Lee Robbins  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 7:21 PM

Thanks for giving this a try--sounds like a great idea!

Josh Vanderberg from Oak Park  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 5:31 PM

This is an amazing idea, and I think we should extend it. Perhaps we could hire a career counselor to help those who are down on their luck and need some skills training. I am sure that these marginalized patrons are in need of medical care so a library doctor seems like a must. The doctor of course will need an office and equipment, perhaps some of the children's books can be put in storage to make some space. Granted this will all cost a lot of money, but no bother, the library already has plenty of books, and with so many people coming in for career counseling and health care, we might be able to cut back on library staff.

John Butch Murtagh  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 5:18 PM

The first job for the social worker is to find part time housing for homeless with reading material. That is a great step to returning the library to the residents that paid for it.

Leonard Grossman  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 5:17 PM

I hope this policy is intended to provide services for the teens and homeless who are using the library and not merely as a velvet glove to get rid of "nuisances."

Marsha Borders  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 5:00 PM

I am glad to hear that something is being done about people using the library as a bedroom and taking up space that others would like to use, especially the seating on the 3rd floor by the windows. No one kids included should use the premises for anything other than it intended purpose. I social worker is a good idea but the security guard should also remain because some persons may be asked to leave if they continue to sleep and snore and loiter.

Pete Garcia  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 4:49 PM

@NC Stein - Right!? What could possibly go wrong? /s

NC Stein  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 4:36 PM

Oak Park never ceases to amaze me. Let's get rid of security and wait for the social worker to arrive.

Dawn Haney  

Posted: February 11th, 2016 4:24 PM

This is a great idea.

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