Alicia Kwande works in a Colorado Springs library, but she isn’t here to talk about overdue books.
She doesn’t care if “Turtle,” the woman standing in front of her, is watching a movie, eating lunch or just relaxing in a chair inside the Penrose Library, whiling away the hours before she has to return to life on the streets.
Kwande wants something else entirely. She wants this woman to apply for housing.
Count Kwande among the newest additions to the Pikes Peak Library District — a social worker whose sole job is to help homeless and low-income visitors ease their struggles. She’s the latest of several social workers hired by libraries across the Front Range — including in Denver, Jefferson and Arapaho counties — to help visitors find a home in which to enjoy their borrowed books.
On this day, that means wanting to find Shontá “Turtle” Taylor an apartment so she isn’t so cold the next time she visits.
“This is drastic — 5 degrees, and that’s not including the wind,” said Taylor, 39, bundled in a puffy black coat after having spent the night sleeping outside.
“Well, if I can get your application ...” Kwande said. “I know, stuff comes up. I just want to get you on the wait list.”
Kwande was hired in October amid mounting complaints about conditions at the Penrose Library, once considered the city’s de facto homeless day center, before the Springs Rescue Mission expanded its campus in 2017.
A smell occasionally greets visitors to the library, and people have complained about seats taken by people who are homeless, people sleeping beside the building and campers leaving trash.
John Spears, the library district’s chief librarian and CEO, said he’s well aware of those complaints, but anyone who follows the library’s rules is allowed inside.
“A library — our doors are open to everyone,” Spears said. “And it’s an unusual situation for someone who’s not homeless to be confronted with standing in line with someone who is homeless to check out a book. Or looking and the only seat available is next to a homeless person. That’s not a situation that most people find themselves with. And there’s a lot of discomfort in that.
“One of the things that I would hope is that maybe Penrose could give them an opportunity to realize that these are people just like they are. They’re definitely in a different situation in life. But they have every right to be there as well.”
Kwande also hears those criticisms, and she defends the people she’s here to help.
“It’s important that we are aware that this is a community-wide issue, and the library happens to be in the center of that community as a downtown library,” Kwande said. “So when you look at what’s impacting the library, and the library’s population, you have to look at what’s going on in the rest of the city.”
It’s not that the Springs Rescue Mission’s day center isn’t being used, said Travis Williams, the nonprofit’s chief development officer. The building, nearly 1½ miles to the south, has been “packed to the gills,” he said, logging about 38,000 visits from July 1, 2017 to June 30, 2018.
With the weather getting colder, those visits are on the rise. An average of 135 people visited each day in November, Williams said. Homeless people also used help more than 1,000 times from dozens of nonprofits at the campus, whether attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings or getting veterinary care for pets, vaccines for themselves or help finding jobs.
Simply put: Too many people are in need, and too few places give them help, Kwande said.
“We’re one of two places where people can access resources without being on a wait list, or having to buy something or having to meet with a case manager. They can just be,” she said. “To me — obviously I’m a social worker — but I think that’s a really positive thing.”
So she walks around the library, striking up conversations with anyone who will talk so she can identify people in need, and then help them connect to services, often through local nonprofits. Some moments are difficult, such as gently nudging some people to consider visiting Ecumenical Social Ministries or Springs Rescue Mission to take a shower.
She spends about a quarter of her time visiting those nonprofits to better understand what they offer. She also helps train the library’s staff on how to best serve homeless visitors. And she plans to set office hours soon.
Kwande works to gain homeless people’s trust, but she won’t force help on anyone.
“I’m really big on respecting people’s privacy and dignity and right not to engage with social work services if they don’t want to,” Kwande said.
Count Taylor as a believer.
She became homeless a few months ago when her apartment building near the Olympic Training Center was sold, and each tenant was told to leave. Now she sleeps outside downtown beside a building near the El Paso County courthouse, while trying to find a new place to live.
That’s where Kwande recently came in, getting her started on an application to get on a wait list for Ithaka Land Trust, a nonprofit that oversees several transitional and permanent housing units in the city.
“She tries to help those that try to help themselves,” Taylor said. “She’s good people. She’s a good person to be on your team.”