Multnomah County Library staff to be trained in mental health first aid

By Kelly House, The Oregonian, Oct. 31, 2013

Multnomah County Library (Image: Padraic/

Multnomah County Library (Image: Padraic/ County’s libraries will soon add social services to the list of amenities they already offer, including books, computers, and a free-of-charge place to escape the weather.

In response to complaints that homeless people behave inappropriately at the county’s libraries, the Board of County Commissioners ordered the Library and the Department of County Human Services to study who uses the library, and what they do there.

READ – Homelessness, Human Services and Libraries – Study Findings (PDF, 105KB)

The findings indicated that homelessness has little to do with whether a library patron will cause problems, said Mary Li, a division manager in the county’s Department of Human Services.

“Despite a common narrative that somehow there’s an inappropriate use by those who are homeless, we did not find that,” she said. “Half of the time people are using the restrooms in the libraries, they’re housed.”

So are about half of library computer users who use the library for computer access.

Other key findings in the report:

  • Of the 1,028 library patrons who took the voluntary survey, 18.6 percent were homeless. Homeless people represent only .61 percent of Multnomah County’s general population.
  • Homeless people visit the library more often, and stay longer, than housed patrons.
  • Homeless people use the library in much the same way as those with homes. Most of them look for books.
  • At the Central Library, 51 percent of respondents used the library for Internet access. Among that group, 28 percent were homeless.
  • Among library patrons using library computers to look for a job, 46 percent were homeless.
  • Some library patrons were seeking social services such as mental health and domestic violence help. About half of those patrons had homes, while half did not.
  • Most patrons who use the library to escape foul weather are not homeless. At central, 67 percent of them have homes. At Gresham Library, the figure is 83 percent.

Multnomah County Library Director Vailey Oehlke said the findings indicated that library patrons could benefit from mental health or other social resources.

“It’s not about being comfortable with homeless people, its about being comfortable with people — housed or not — who may be presenting some challenges in the environment,” Oehlke said.

The report details steps the library will take, in partnership with the Department of County Human Services, to offer such social services on-site.

The first step is developing a relationship with county human services workers who will visit the library regularly as part of their outreach activities.

Later, library employees will receive training in “mental health first aid” to address library patrons facing mental health-related emergencies. The library will also promote 211info, a social services hotline, and provide patrons with other information about ways to access services.

“Our libraries are open, democratic, public institutions,” Li said. “They’re open to make sure the widest possible access to knowledge and education is available to all of us.”