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I was disappointed recently, to read a sign posted at the entrance to the washroom at the downtown Kelowna library stating anyone using the facilities must be “sober." (Given I’d just finished volunteering for a family literacy program, I was. Phew!)
The sign went on to say washroom users must also be “respectful,” and that the space was not for sleeping, drug use, bathing or washing of clothing.
Clearly, this isn’t about folks like me who are privileged enough to have somewhere safe to shower, do laundry, sleep and enjoy a couple glasses of wine to take the edge off at the end of a stressful day. Nope. This is about residents of our community who don’t have it so good. People who may be unhoused, and living rough or in shelters. People who may rely on substances to manage physical and emotional pain, and just get through each day. People for whom public spaces such as the library are a place of connection, safety and respite from extreme weather.
The presumption that sober equals respectful and well-behaved is offensive and ignorant. The fact the library employs a security guard (who, I imagine, has no real training in trauma-informed practice nor supporting individuals who are marginalized or in crisis) to ensure these rules are followed by checking the washrooms and rousting people who don’t comply, misses the mark entirely.
Of course nobody wants people dying by overdose in the library washrooms. Of course, maintaining a space that feels welcoming and safe for families and library staff is critical. Of course, it shouldn’t be the job of a librarian to administer life-saving Naloxone to someone who has overdosed. But rules that punish and de-humanize residents of our community are not the answer.
It's time for creative solutions. Case in point; Toronto Public Library. In 2018, the library hired a full-time social worker to connect with, and support, vulnerable library users. In addition, the TPL has a program that embeds community librarians in local, social service organizations. In addition to offering traditional library services, they help people with resumes and job applications, create book discussion groups, connect people with community services, and help with technology skill development.
Just last month, Okanagan Regional Library announced a $1.68 M grant from the provincial government. The press release said the library was “excited to have the opportunity to use these funds to make a positive impact on its communities.”
Here’s an idea: Why not use some of that money to hire outreach workers for the downtown Kelowna library? What a gift to library users and staff, and to our street community! And hey, you could even make up some of the extra expense by ditching the security guard.