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Baltimore’s Enoch Pratt libraries add another service to their shelves: addiction services

From left, Tiffinee Scott, a Maryland Peer Advisory Council (MPAC) peer navigator,  Donna Bruce, a registered peer and outreach supervisor, and Angela Daniello work on a jigsaw puzzle at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The branch has launched a pilot program offering peer counselors. Daniello comes to the library “for peace of mind.” She has received Narcan training and help with anxiety and grief. MPAC, Healing City Baltimore and Pratt Library are partnering in the project. August 5, 2022.

On a recent day, a man in a red shirt came into the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Baltimore library system and thanked the workers for saving his life.

“He got Narcan from the library,” said Donna Bruce, a peer recovery supervisor for the Enoch Pratt Free Library System. “He came in to say thanks. To the library. And then he went to work.”

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Narcan is a brand name for naloxone, a remedy for opioid overdoses, and Bruce, with a sigh of satisfaction, said it’s a measure of success for a program launched in December at the branch that has aided hundreds of people and families affected by substance use and mental health issues.

Long a cornerstone of Baltimore neighborhoods, libraries offer a lot more than a good read. In addition to the services provided by librarians, the Pratt system has brought in specialists to provide social work, legal aid, employment services and, lately, pandemic supplies.

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From left, Donna Bruce, a registered peer and outreach supervisor, works on a jigsaw puzzle with Angela Daniello at the Pennsylvania Avenue branch of the Enoch Pratt Free Library. The branch has launched a pilot program offering peer counselors. Daniello comes to the library “for peace of mind.” She has received Narcan training, help with anxiety and grief. MPAC, Healing City Baltimore and Pratt Library are partnering in the project. August 5, 2022.

Drug use has been a scourge in the city for years and overdoses rose for much of the coronavirus pandemic. Library officials saw an opportunity to add a new service for people who were coming to the library for other reasons, and, until recently, frequently were turned away from the libraries under a zero-tolerance policy.

They come seeking job or housing assistance, to use the internet or the bathroom, or just to escape the summer heat, said Tiffinee Scott, founder of the Maryland Peer Advisory Council, which works to get peer counselors trained, certified and placed, and is partnering with the libraries on the program.

Peer counselors are people who have experienced their own behavioral health issues either personally or through a family member. Scott said they connect with others with similar experiences and then can help them navigate available resources.

The Penn branch, for example, is across the street from the Penn North Recovery Center, which offers treatment.

But it’s the library where people sometimes go first. It’s at the heart of Penn-North, a West Baltimore neighborhood near the home of Freddie Gray, a young Black man whose 2015 death in police custody sparked protests and unrest.

In the beginning, Bruce worked just three hours one day a week, but she has since taken a full-time role at the Penn branch. Scott said the partners hope to begin fundraising to pay for peer counselors at more branches. Already, counselors spend a few hours a week at the Brooklyn branch.

Librarians became the first city workers trained in so-called trauma-informed practices under new legislation passed by the city. But library leaders say they still can’t be expected to counsel those in the throes of addiction.

Bruce went through training and was certified as a counselor after the death of her adult son, who struggled with behavioral health issues.

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The effort began when Councilman Zeke Cohen approached the libraries about a series of incidents at the Penn branch, said Heidi Daniel, Pratt Library president and CEO. It appealed to her sense of the system’s mission to serve “whole people, whole communities.”

“We view ourselves as community anchors,” she said. “The role of the library has changed over time, from providing materials such as books to access to many types of resources and guidance. This is a natural extension of that.”

There is not one way Bruce approaches library patrons. Usually they ask for help with something else, getting a meal or a job, or she comes by to chat. She works with people inside and outside the library to get them what they need. She now has several “repeaters,” those who come back for other issues, such as one person who returned when their electricity was shut off. That builds trust and, eventually, some will want to get into treatment for their substance use disorder.

But Bruce and Scott say success is measured through interactions, not just lives saved. Maybe someone gets into housing and gets needed health care, maybe someone else stops using IV drugs and only drinks but is able to keep working. Maybe they leave with nothing but come back later.

“There is no finger pointing, no stigma,” Scott said.

Peer counselors like Bruce can connect to patrons because they understand what they are going through. They don’t tell them what to do but can direct them to resources, Daniel said.

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Daniel said the library also partners with other groups such as Maryland Legal Aid, which provides lawyers, and with the University of Maryland School of Social Work, Morgan State University and Coppin State University to provide social work services.

But substance use remains a stubborn problem in Baltimore, which has the highest number of fatal overdoses in the state. More than 1,000 people died from an overdose in Baltimore in the year ending in March, about the same as the same period a year before, according to state data.

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“Overdoses are a crisis in Baltimore,” said Cohen, who supported the legislation in the City Council to train city employees in trauma-informed approaches.

Cohen hopes to help the libraries and the Maryland Peer Advisory Council fundraise hundreds of thousands of dollars needed to hire more peer counselors and expand the program to at least a half-dozen libraries. He wants to show the program has value and could serve as a national model.

“Librarians are being asked to be auxiliary coaches and parents and social workers and it’s not fair; we need to hire people,” Cohen said.

“This doesn’t mean people can use drugs in the library. It’s saying we’re not going to kick someone out who has used within the last 24 hours and we’re going to provide a sense of safety and comfort and tolerance and reduce harm and provide resources,” he said. “Ultimately, for someone to accept help and get treatment, they need to be stable and not on the street.”

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Back at the Penn library, Angela Daniello, 36, of Baltimore, worked on a puzzle with Bruce. Suffering her own behavioral health issues, she began coming to the library to get out of the weather.

She met Bruce one day when she became distraught after deciding to write an obituary for a young goddaughter who was killed. Bruce was able to calm her down, and has since helped guide her to temporary housing and other resources.

Now, Daniello said, “I come here for peace of mind.”


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