Seattle libraries, transit branch into social work to take on mental health, drug use

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

Seattle libraries, transit branch into social work to take on mental health, drug use
Seattle libraries, transit branch into social work to take on mental health, drug use

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Walking the perimeter of the Seattle Central Library downtown, a security guard on his morning round bumped into an unconscious figure on the ground in the shadow of the 11-floor glass building. Staff moved quickly, administering Narcan for the suspected overdose, and then called medics for help. 

It was 8 a.m. on a Thursday; the library doesn’t open till 10 a.m. 

Down the street, a separate team of peer outreach workers handed out snacks, water and hygiene kits to people outside the Pioneer Square light-rail station as part of a pilot project with Sound Transit.  

Increasingly, social work and community outreach for mental illness, substance use and homelessness looks like this. The work isn’t constrained to shelters or nonprofit agencies but instead lands on the shoulders of public spaces like libraries, transit and parks. 

While it’s no secret that Seattle — and many other cities — face this crisis, it raises the question: Whose job is it to care for a city’s most vulnerable? How does a community tackle a problem that’s intangible but seemingly everywhere? 


In 2014, the Seattle Public Library system — across its 27 branches — started internal discussions about how to support visitors who sometimes ask staff about where to find warm clothes, food, help for domestic violence or housing and shelter recommendations. 

Pre-pandemic, the SPL partnered with the Downtown Emergency Service Center to connect library patrons with referrals to other services. This year, however, the library debuted four new in-house staff members dubbed “social services librarians” who are specifically equipped to help patrons with these questions, often calling shelters on their behalf or reaching out to other organizations for help. 

“We’ve been connecting people for a long time,” said Valerie Wonder, the regional manager for the downtown library. “It’s just that the crisis has grown by leaps and bounds and so the work we do has to shift as well.”

Last fall, the library officially allowed staff to carry and administer Narcan, a lifesaving treatment that can reverse opioid overdose. The program is voluntary and as of this month had been used twice.

Most library staff are also trained in de-escalation and trauma-informed practices, mindful that some patrons have undergone a lot of stress on the streets and in the legal, housing and mental health systems. Staff do ask patrons to leave if they are in a mental or emotional crisis and unable to calm themselves, and sometimes call police. According to Seattle public records, law enforcement has been dispatched 55 times to the downtown library since the start of the year — about one call every other day through the beginning of April. 

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Still, staff by and large will try to help people stay in the space, said Daniel Tilton, the social services librarian assembling the team. Something as simple as having a pair of shoes on hand if someone walks in barefoot can make a difference. 

“We’re really trying to think about what are different things that we can have that either meet people’s needs or just so they can be in our space at that time,” Tilton explained. 

Though SPL staff members do not track patrons according to homelessness, substance use, mental illness or other needs, they say their work has already made a difference. Over the last five months, the downtown branch provided emergency supplies (like hand warmers or water and snacks) to 420 people, as well as 280 referrals to other resources.

In a recent event with the King County Regional Homelessness Authority, more than two dozen individuals were also enrolled in their intake program. Funding for social services is paid through the city’s general fund and costs about $419,000 a year (namely for salaries with $35,000 for supplies and training), with one role in the team funded by the library levy passed in 2019. 

At the SPL University location, one program specifically reaches out to homeless youth and young adults, likewise connecting them to housing or employment, or simply providing food. (In-person, weekly “drop-ins” will start again in May in that location.) Other programs with local or national partners provide free cellphones or transit passes. 

Still, staff members are discovering their limits: “That edge between what maybe we not do I think is something that we’re still talking about,” said Wonder, the regional manager.  

Library staff can’t make more shelter beds appear, and even when they do manage to refer a patron to another service, they’re not able to drive them over or ensure the follow-through. 

“Being a librarian, there’s a lot that I want to do, but I can only do so much,” said Dillon Baker, another social services librarian on the team. 

Over a recent weekend, Baker was working with a couple who needed shelter. She called around looking for a place that would take both of them and managed to find a spot. 

“They had all the information, they had the bus ticket, but I don’t know what happens once the building closes,” Baker said. 


Libraries function as a unique “third place,” a term coined by sociologists in the late ‘80s that identifies a place that’s not your home (a first space) or work (a second space) but still brings people together. Cafes, public parks, churches and gyms are often go-to “third spaces” for many people. 

Many of those places, however, cost money to access — whether it’s a gym membership or the social nicety to buy a latte at a coffee shop. The library has no such requirement. 

The forays by libraries and other public spaces is a “signal of both really beautiful things and really troubling things kind of at the same time,” said Danielle Littman, a clinical social worker who recently completed a dissertation on mutual aid, community spaces and youth homelessness at the University of Denver Graduate School of Social Work. 

Libraries are likely “filling in the gaps” for people who don’t have or are not being well-served in a first or second place, Littman said.

A shelter, for example, may provide someone with basic needs like food, water and a roof but not the fulfilling parts of work or the social aspect of a community space; in the library, they may find traits of their second and third place — with the added bonus of being a warm and quiet space, where they can also check email or fill out forms online. 

Littman also notes that despite the services some third places provide, those same spaces can be prejudicial toward people in need. Staff can push for policies that prohibit people from bathing in bathrooms or asking for change. (Seattle Public Library’s rules of conduct ban lying down or the appearance of sleeping.) In some cases, public facilities will design hostile architecture that deters people from sleeping or congregating in certain areas, like placing unnecessary bike racks beneath a highway overpass.

“Things like parks and libraries and other more municipally oriented third places, those are our battleground for how we think we should treat people in our society regardless of whether they’re deserving,” Littman said. 

Transit in Seattle walks this thin line. 

While many transit stops avoid using benches so that people experiencing homelessness don’t sleep on them, the light rail ultimately provides a safe space. With our without paying fare, people who are unsheltered can stay warm and dry, riding the light rail or bus for hours.

But in some instances, people in a mental health crisis are causing disturbances at downtown stations, or bus drivers have to confront people who are using drugs aboard. Ultimately, it led Sound Transit and King County Metro to seek support from the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Division. 

In Washington, D.C., Amtrak had set up a program at its Union Station location, sending social workers to help with outreach and de-escalation for people who are undergoing a substance use or mental health crisis.

Sound Transit copied that model in December and contracted four peer workers who formerly experienced homelessness to start a pilot program. The team goes out five days a week from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m., focusing on Seattle’s downtown transit tunnels, connecting people to food and water, clothes, hygiene kits and harm reduction supplies like clean needles and testing supplies. 

Paris Stewart, a peer outreach worker with the new team, recalled recently giving snacks and water to a couple on a bus who told him they were trying to “sleep their hunger pains away.” 

On a typical day at work, he’s walking, backpack in hand, looking for the signs that someone could benefit from resources, whether they’re in a sleeping bag inside Westlake or lingering outside the Pioneer Square station. 

Staff do not keep files on people or traditional caseloads but do communicate internally about certain clients whom they see often. As Robert Ewanio, a King County employee and mental health professional overseeing the program, puts it, “Success is making those connections and seeing individuals and preventing the escalation from happening.”

The funding will likely take the pilot program through the rest of the year and a similar program has started with King County Metro at the Aurora Village and Burien transit centers. 

When asked if it’s the role of Sound Transit to provide people in need with these services, Brad Blackburn, the deputy director of public safety at the agency, replied, “It’s the role of everybody.” 

Ewanio, likewise shared that the program is “something that probably should have been done a long time ago.” 

Still, it’s not enough. Kirk Rodriguez, one of the peer workers who was formerly homeless himself, points to the reality: More treatment services and housing is necessary.

“We can have a response team all day, every day,” he said. “But if we’re all just handing out snacks, and don’t necessarily have the other resources or referrals … if that doesn’t exist, then people who need it just stay on the street.”