Social Worker within Library System Helps Those Struggling with Homelessness, Mental Illness

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by Mike Averill, courtesy of Tulsa World

Most visits between Deborah Hunter and her daughter end with Hunter at home, in tears.  Her daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia shortly after starting college. The disease has progressed to a point where Hunter’s daughter doesn’t believe her mother is really her mother.

Instead, in her mind, they are simply friends.  “I had to learn how to compartmentalize our relationship,” she said. “I had a very clear vision that I wasn’t a friend, I was her mother, so that transition was hard. It’s still hard.”

As much pain as her daughter’s mental illness has caused Hunter, it also serves as the driver for her work.  Hunter is a case manager with Family and Children’s Services’ homeless outreach team and works within the Tulsa City-County Library System.

She spends four days a week at Central Library and one day rotating between the other branches, working with library patrons who are struggling with homelessness and mental illness.  The main service Hunter provides is resources for those needing clothing, food and other essentials.

She also works with individuals who are newly homeless, who aren’t aware of the services that are available and how to maneuver the system.  Hunter chose her field after watching her daughter end up homeless for a stint, despite support from her mother.

“I started learning about her illness and how to advocate for her … and I realized that if that can happen to her and she had me to advocate for her, what about people who have no one to advocate for them?” she said.  Hunter went back to school and finished her degree so she could work with adults in a similar situation.

“A lot of times people assume that if someone is homeless and has a mental illness that the family has abandoned them, and that’s not the case at all in many instances,” she said. “For someone who has severe behavioral issues, sometimes the family can’t deal with those issues. They don’t have the capabilities.”

Often, library staff is not equipped to deal with patrons experiencing mental health issues.  “I can intervene and de-escalate situations. Since librarians are not diagnosticians, sometimes it’s difficult for them to know what to do when someone’s behavior is outside of the norm,” she said.

Hunter works with library staff on how to better deal with individuals with mental health issues, teaching them how to read body language and facial expressions and how to manage their own body language and facial expressions.  “They have questions about mental illnesses, what they are and the kinds of behaviors displayed and the best ways to respond to people who may be having behavioral issues,” she said.

The City-County Library is one of the few library systems in the country offering such a service.  Kimberly Johnson, library CEO, said Hunter provides a vital service and is a familiar face for many who otherwise would be reluctant to reach out for help.  “She has earned her reputation as being fair and non-judgmental to all in times of crisis. Her consistent and calm demeanor is key to her effectiveness in building relationships,” Johnson said.

“We also know that economic disparity is not isolated to downtown. Deborah’s role with the library allows her to travel to different Tulsa City-County libraries to assist customers in finding local services that can help improve their current standing.”