Libraries offer a safe haven for Melburnians in need 

24 March 2022

Thousands of people with extraordinary life stories pass through the doors of our city’s public libraries every week. For community members having a tough time, support is at hand amid the shelves. 

Erin McKeegan is our library social worker. After 12 years working in forensic mental health, hospitals and remote communities in the Northern Territory, she is well equipped to support the community. 

In her role, Erin works with people experiencing multiple and complex challenges including, but not limited to, homelessness, addiction and trauma, meeting weekly with a network of agencies to connect patrons to the care they need. 

Amid the welcoming, non-clinical library environment, Erin builds rapport with people who are disengaged from support services, coordinates acute care for people experiencing mental health crises, and much more. 

‘The way libraries are used has completely changed. They are now one of the few public spaces that are free and accessible to all. They are a safe place to come for people who are marginalised or sleeping rough,’ Erin said. 

‘People drop by to charge their phone, do their online banking, and to get away from the heat or cold. Many library staff have long-term relationships with patrons and notice if they need extra support.’ 

In recent weeks, Erin has helped a woman experiencing family violence to connect with a network of support and assisted a man who hadn’t slept for several days after he found himself experiencing homelessness for the first time. 

While Erin’s job involves listening to traumatic stories, she feels privileged to hear them.  

‘I like to think that I am hearing people’s stories of survival and resilience.’  

‘Everyone is the expert of their own life, and I only see people for a short amount of time in their journey. We may not be able to achieve someone’s goal during this time, but we refer them to other support services wherever possible.  

‘Some people might go back to old habits, but you just keep trying and never give up hope.’ 

One of the most fulfilling experiences Erin has had recently was helping a woman in her late 70s find a new home.

‘The lady had been living in high-rise public housing and feeling very stressed. Her wish was to spend the last phase of her life in country Victoria, in a peaceful place with a garden, near the Murray River, with her little cat.

‘We helped her apply for a new place to live and yesterday she got a housing offer, so she’s catching the train to Wodonga next week. She’s so happy. It was great news.’

The USA began embedding social workers in libraries 10 years ago and the model is growing in popularity globally. The City of Melbourne was the first Australian location to get on board, and the benefits are clear.  

‘With a social worker on staff, the whole library team now has more tools and resources to support people in need. We also get referrals from other City of Melbourne staff, like the maternal and child health team.’ 

‘This is a great network to have, and we will continue to listen and learn to improve our service. We also have social work students rotating through our team, and we’re keen to employ people with lived experience in future.’ 

As we welcome people back to the city, Erin is pleased to be able to offer regular face-to-face support once more, and to assist people through the transition as COVID-19 crisis accommodation concludes. 

Looking to the future, Erin hopes to see more affordable housing and more mental health support and drug and alcohol outreach. She also aims to help create more opportunities for social engagement, where isolated people can find support and friendship. 

‘If you want to help, learn about people’s lived experience through the Big Issue or Council to Homeless Persons, volunteer for a registered organisation that supports people experiencing homelessness, and donate meals through “pay it forward” programs at cafes,’ Erin said. 

‘Above all, remember that people experiencing homelessness may have complex issues at play. Homelessness can happen to anyone at any time due to factors outside your control, so it’s important to be compassionate.’ 

Our library social worker program complements a range of City of Melbourne projects, including our Homes Melbourne team and the Make Room accommodation project.  

For more information, visit Homelessness.  

Library locations 

City Library, 253 Flinders Lane Melbourne
East Melbourne Library, 122 George Street East Melbourne
Kathleen Syme Library and Community Centre, 251 Faraday Street Carlton
Library at The Dock, 107 Victoria Harbour Promenade Docklands
North Melbourne Library, 66 Errol Street North Melbourne
Southbank Library, 207 City Road Southbank

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