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‘This is why we signed up’: Librarian, homeless shelter manager continue working during pandemic

Victoria Penate
Staff Writer

By the numbers

As of May 13

Number of COVID-19 cases in Nevada County: 41

Number in western county: 12

Number in eastern county: 29

Number of active cases: zero

Number of recoveries: 40

Number of deaths: 1

Learn more at http://www.theunion.com/coronavirus

Even though the doors to the Nevada County library are closed, there has been plenty of work for the library’s staff.

“We’re all doing a lot of work behind the scenes,” said Cindy Pawlowski, the branch manager at Nevada City’s Madelyn Helling Library — one of six library branches in the county, all of which are currently closed to the public in accordance with state guidelines.

According to Pawlowski, the Madelyn Helling branch normally employs 16 staff members, the “vast majority” of whom are still working despite the library closure.

“The library is still the library, just without the physical materials,” she said.

Some have refocused their work toward organizing this year’s summer learning program, which is set to begin June 13. Due to uncertainty as to what will be recommended at that time, library staff are tailoring program plans to be flexible for remote or independent activity.

For others, work has looked very different lately. In this difficult time, library staff members are considered disaster service workers, allowing them to take on a variety of roles for the county.

“Some people are helping get communications out about certain agencies or helping out the county board,” said Pawlowski. “One staff member was helping the Department of Veterans Affairs by driving people to their medical appointments.”

Staying connected

Many of the library’s social and educational functions have also continued, albeit in a virtual setting.

From a weekly children’s story time — held at 10:30 a.m. Tuesdays on Facebook Live — to the transition of tech help, happy hours, and book clubs onto Zoom calls, the library’s event calendar remains full of ways for the community to get connected to library staff and each other.

In addition to all of the new online activity, for Pawlowski, one recent highlight has been what she calls a return to “primitive technology” — the library’s Letter from a Librarian program.

The program, in which participants mail a letter to the librarians and can request a small piece of art in response, kicked off in late April and will continue until they receive 100 letters.

As far as who has participated so far, Pawlowski said, “They’ve been from individuals telling us what they’ve been doing during the COVID shelter in place, and they have been grandparents, children, people of all ages.”

She added that, while this program has been a fun experience, she misses seeing all of the library’s visitors in person.

“We are definitely an agency that is here to support and serve the community, and that direct aspect is missed,” said Pawlowski. “We look forward to seeing everyone’s faces when we reopen.”

Caring for those in need

When recounting the changes brought to his work by the COVID-19 crisis, Joe Naake stopped to emphasize his sense of purpose, saying, “It’s been a challenge at times, but as essential workers, that’s what we’re called to do.”

Naake is the outreach manager at the Hospitality House community shelter in Grass Valley, and serves as manager of Nevada County’s Homeless Outreach and Medical Engagement — or HOME — Team.

The HOME Team is a collaboration between local outreach workers, housing navigators, peer support systems, and a Behavioral Health Department registered nurse.

“The whole team has been fully operational throughout this whole COVID-19 crisis,” said Naake. He noted that a lot of the people the team works with are chronically homeless and often live with long-term health issues, making it all the more important that they have access to protection from exposure to the virus.

As the HOME Team continues its work, it’s made some adjustments to the usual protocol. It’s included Zoom meetings to replace walk-in intake assessments, shifting more work out into the open rather than an indoor office, and the use of more spacious vehicles such as vans to maintain some distancing during any necessary transportation.

In addition to its routine assessments and case management, the HOME Team has also participated in “Project Room Key”, a statewide collaboration with FEMA to house COVID-19 positive or high-risk homeless individuals in hotel or motel rooms.

It began this effort in mid-March, moving about 20 people into motel rooms from Hospitality House to facilitate distancing. The shelter has been operating at a reduced capacity since, but is still taking people in.

Naake added that all housed individuals’ health is monitored regularly, and they have been tested for COVID-19 if displaying symptoms of the virus. As of now, no one under the HOME Team’s care has tested positive, although many are considered high risk due to age, underlying conditions, or other circumstances such as pregnancy.

“What we’ve done there is continue to provide on-site case management, check in with the folks in motels daily, and Hospitality House has been providing three meals a day to help folks shelter in place,” said Naake.

One of the biggest concerns for Naake in navigating COVID-19 as a housing service provider has been the rapidly changing landscape of the crisis itself, and the corresponding need for clear communication at every step of the outreach and service process.

However, Naake has remained positive throughout, saying that adapting to the situation has been an interesting challenge.

“This is why we signed up,” he said. “This is the work we all chose to do, and we all love it.”


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Victoria Penate is a staff writer for The Union.

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