Denver Public Library helps homeless community

Photo// Chris Caldwell

Photo// Chris Caldwell


Denver’s Central Library has always been a haven to the community’s homeless population. Two years ago, in an effort to cater to the needs of its visitors, the library set out to create a social program for the homeless community. They hired two licensed clinical social workers to help provide referrals to resources, and this January the library expanded their program by hiring three peer navigators—individuals who have been homeless themselves and are in recovery.

All of the peer navigators have dealt with personal struggles of substance abuse and mental health issues, and their experiences make them more essential than just a few extra hands. “Not only will they help us assist more people, they can connect with them in ways that are very personal in nature,” Elissa Hardy, the library’s lead community resource specialist, said. “They’ve experienced homelessness or other life adversities and have come out strong on the other side. It makes their interactions very genuine and empathetic.”

The navigators were hired and trained by the Colorado Mental Wellness Network, which supervises the program. This organization, in conjunction with Denver Human Services, provides financial support through the Justice Assistance Grant from the US Department of Justice. According to Hardy, $41,000 from the grant is used to pay for the salaries of the peer navigators and homeless client needs such as transportation costs, food, and clothing.

Last year alone, community resource specialists at the Denver Public Library served 1,265 people by referring them to resources for housing, substance abuse recovery, mental health treatment, and more. According to The Denver Post, social workers plan to aim for 1,625 clients this year, with 405 of them being juveniles.

The library’s social program has been welcomed with warm reception by the community. “People who come to the library are seeking resources, especially those who aren’t sure what resources are available or how to access them,” Hardy said. “They are very grateful for this program.”

The usefulness of the resource staff isn’t restricted to the homeless community, and their value to the library has been noted as well. Social workers have helped with de-escalating conflict between the library patrons and members of homeless community on several occasions. “They have been able to intercede in some situations which would have required a police call or someone being bounced from the library,” Bob Knowles, the library’sw security manager, said.

According to Hardy, people don’t have to be social workers to become active advocates for the homeless community. Even a simple but thoughtful course of action could be very impactful. “There are many agencies doing good work in this area,” Hardy said. “College students can find a cause and get active in supporting it. There are also many volunteer activities in the community. Talk to someone experiencing homelessness and get to know them. Both people will benefit from this interaction and these actions can ripple out into the community as a whole.”

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