Boston Public Library Finds Ways to Safely Serve Homeless, Recovering Patrons Thru Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered public libraries nationwide, compelling librarians to quickly deploy virtual alternatives to programming and online learning while boosting electronic collections to meet a growing demand. But these virtual offerings often leave out some of public libraries' most devoted yet vulnerable patrons: those who are unhoused or coping with mental health problems or substance use.

Staff unloading Books For Boston gift from Trident Books in front of a library while wearing a surgical mask due to COVID-19 outbreakThe COVID-19 pandemic has shuttered public libraries nationwide, compelling librarians to quickly deploy virtual alternatives to programming and online learning while boosting electronic collections to meet a growing demand. But these virtual offerings often leave out some of public libraries' most devoted yet vulnerable patrons: those who are unhoused or coping with mental health problems or substance use.

It can be difficult to safely provide substitute services to these groups, many of whose members may be at increased risk from the virus. But the Boston Public Library (BPL) strategized with fellow staff and city-wide organizations to deliver books, reallocate library iPads to shelter guests, and loan Wi-Fi hotspots to recovery and treatment programs.

“Many of these vulnerable populations are truly stuck at home or in a shelter,” said Michael Colford, BPL Director of Library Services. “If this program can make the lives of anyone a little easier...then I think we’ve done a good thing.”



Once the BPL closed its doors, a virtual outreach group was created to brainstorm how staff could safely broaden its reach to marginalized patrons. We wanted to provide reading materials, but library books were potentially unsafe, staff was working from home, and organizations needed to significantly minimize contact. To alleviate these concerns, BPL decided to work with local, independent bookstores to deliver brand new books pulled from in-store inventory to selected nonprofits, funded by both the BPL’s collections budget and a fundraising campaign by the Boston Public Library Fund.

“Small businesses like us have been particularly vulnerable to this crisis,” said Courtney Flynn, Vice President of Trident Books. “Programs like the one we are doing with the BPL are a lifeline.”

Two weeks after closing, staff piloted the “Books for Boston” program with three local nonprofits. Librarians collaborated with the organizations to curate relevant genre lists, determine a manageable amount of books, and identify best practices for delivery, to create in a safe and reliable system.

“Choosing the books for these orders has been one of the bright spots in an otherwise bleak time,” said Flynn. “I try to imagine who will be picking up the books, and what they may get out of them...Literature is a way for people to connect with the human experience.”

Despite minor logistical adjustments—bookstores opting for in-person, contactless delivery versus mail to reduce coststhe pilot quickly evolved to nine book deliveries and counting. Packages ranged in size from 50 to 500 items, totally about 1,400 books delivered to homeless and domestic violence shelters, senior centers, and the Boston HOPE Medical Center. The goal is to distribute 5,000 books in the coming weeks.



It started with a request from a patron: Could the library provide a Wi-Fi hotspot to an unhoused individual trying to complete her computer science coursework?

“The shelter I’m currently in does not have Wi-Fi,” explained Winnie, who asked that we only use her first name to protect her identity. “I had to drive with my [seven-month-old] son to the free Xfinity hotspot locations to try and connect to it to do course videos or submit my projects for grading.”

That singular need led to a larger discussion about digital equity. Yes, the Wi-Fi in our buildings was still on, but a lack of covered areas, parking lots, a weaker signal, and cold, wet weather meant that was not a viable solution.

Enter BPL hotspots. I knew our entire inventory was checked out to patrons, but what if we could get more? Enlisting the expertise and support of BPL Chief Technology Officer, Kurt Mansperger, we identified offline communities such as pop-up medical clinics, comfort stations, shelters, and treatment programs. Some did not have the bandwidth to oversee implementation as emerging public health needs were prioritized. As an alternative for one shelter, we donated 16 refurbished iPads from our collection at the request of its director for materials to keep guests connected and engaged to encourage self-isolation to reduce the risk of exposure.

Ultimately, we collaborated with two city agencies, the Boston Public Health Commission and the Department of Innovation and Technology, to deliver hotspots to a few of BPHC’s residential recovery programs and walk-in substance use treatment centers that lack Wi-Fi for clients and staff.

“Recovery is a process of connection for folks,” said Jess Nieuwenhuizen, Director of Programs and Planning for Boston’s Bureau of Recovery Services. “COVID really isolates people from peers and families.”

While some program residents have access to cell phones and data, many do not, restricting access to virtual Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous meetings, online courses for vocational certifications, and private telehealth visits. Nieuwenhuizen said clients have rallied around each other, often sharing Wi-Fi access points, but the capacity to sustain this support isn’t practical.

Due to an acute need for the devices under atypical working conditions, we lacked time to fundraise or apply for grants. Thankfully, a new contract with Sprint provided a refreshed inventory of devices, and Mansperger reallocated departmental funding. Although this limited the number of devices and loan timeframe through June 2020 due to data costs, we delivered 23 hotspots, reaching up to 120 clients on a given day, notcounting the family members, loved ones, healthcare providers, and sponsors who will have a stable line of communication to individuals seeking their support.

“Now [that I have] the hotspot, I’m able to stay at home when my son goes to sleep which is usually after curfew,” said Winnie. Without it, “I am not sure if I would have been able to be as successful in this course as I am now.”

We also view this as an opportunity to introduce and encourage use of library resources like multi-language audiobook options, literacy support, and virtual programming, perhaps creating life-long library users.

“I’m excited to see the impact and ripple effect on how it can improve people’s lives,” said Nieuwenhuizen, who believes digital equity provides access to building blocks to be independent. “[We will] hear about stories we haven’t even thought of.”

BPL’s efforts relied on accessible funding, collaborative partners, and recyclable equipment that not every library will have access to. Even so, staff were unable to connect or help all desired partners, had to set limits on how much we could do, and tested our ideas with a bit of trial and error. But limited help is better than no help at all. As Mansperger said, “ [The] main goal is just to have [our city] know people care about them and are trying to support them in this challenging time.”

Ally Dowds is the Health & Human Services Research Specialist at the Boston Public Library. In this role, she collaborates with local shelters and nonprofits to connect individuals experiencing homelessness, mental health issues, and substance use with relevant library services and resources.

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