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Lori Wolfe/The Herald-Dispatch Cabell County Public Library is the only library in the state with a licensed social worker in Francie Roberts-Buchanan.

HUNTINGTON — Practicing the art and science of bringing people and community services together is something the Cabell County Public Library has been doing for more than four decades.

"One thing that has been consistent with our Information and Referral Services program here at the library is the fact that we have had a licensed social worker here for 42 years," said Cabell County Public Library director Judy Rule, who has been working at the library since 1967. "We are the only library in the state with a licensed social worker."

That licensed social worker is Francie Roberts-Buchanan. She has a master's degree in social work and is the library's Information and Referral Services Department's director.

Roberts-Buchanan says thanks to Information and Referral Services, the library has a database filled with community resources that is continuously updated by the library's database specialists.

"We hope to have the answer to almost any question, from who to call to get a bat out of your attic to where you can donate items you no longer need," she explained. "If you have a dead deer in your yard, we wanted to be able to tell you where to call to get that taken care of. The goal of Information and Referral is and has always been to link people in our community with resources to meet their needs."

The program also has caseworkers with knowledge of community resources.

"They will sit down with each family or individual to assist in finding a solution to whatever problem you may have," she said.

Before coming to the library, Roberts-Buchanan worked for the West Virginia Housing Development Fund.

"I worked for them short term, bringing in the first Section 8 vouchers, which were the vouchers for low-income people to pay landlords, into this community before the Housing Authority had it," she said. "Ironically, I am writing a grant application to the West Virginia Housing Development Fund today."

Roberts-Buchanan said at that time landlords didn't trust government-run programs.

"The dearest people that helped me the most were a few of the African American women in the Fairfield district," she recalled. "They said, 'We are going to have a lunch and we're going to invite all of these landlords, and we're going to talk to them about this program.' We told the landlords they wouldn't have to worry about getting their rent with this program. That lunch worked out well for everyone. I was in my early 20s, and I really learned a lot."

Roberts-Buchanan said she worked with Harmony Phillips when Information and Referral Services started at the library.

"She was bossy and she was sassy, but she had a heart of gold and had lots of answers for those needing information. She was a digger and would dig and dig and dig until she found the information needed," she said. "All of us, including Judy Rule and Jim Nelson, wanted this Information and Referral Services program to work. There has always been that type of dedication to community here."

She said she remembers when Nelson told her in 1978 that a new library was being built in the location they are at today.

"He said, 'It is going to be the biggest information store anyone has ever seen,'" she said. "He said he wanted the library to have information for everyone in the community, regardless if they are rich or poor, black or white, or whatever their status may be, so they can find what they need to help make their lives better."

History of Information and Referral

Information and Referral Services is a section of the Cabell County Public Library that has been around since the mid-1970s and has grown ever since.

"There was a push in the late 1960s and early 1970s to bring information referral services to public libraries," Rule recalled. "As I remember, the first one was in Detroit, Michigan, in 1970 and was called TIP, which stands for The Information Place."

Rule says after Detroit, information referral services began to open at libraries across the country. She said they were located at mostly large libraries in cities like New York, Atlanta and San Francisco.

"Here in Huntington we said, 'If they can do this, then we can do this,'" Rule said.

The director of the Huntington library at that time was James B. Nelson, and Rule says it was his feeling that a library should not just be a place where you find information from books, but it should be a place to find information about the community as well.

Rule said one of the library staff, Harmony Phillips, started making a database of social service agencies and how folks could access information to social services' delivery systems of benefits.

"That was the beginning of Information and Referral Services in Cabell County," she said. "Harmony would give out information to those that came to the library about all types of community services in the region. She was linking a person with a need or a problem with a service or agency that might be able to meet the need or solve the problem."

The information Phillips gave out provided details including contacts, telephone numbers, mailing addresses, how to access services, qualifications for services and more.

"Then we did a community service directory," Rule said. "It was published several times."

Rule said when computers came to the library, its entire paper database was entered to make a computerized database that is still used today.

"Today we have it online and people can access the community services directory from the Cabell County Public Library's website," she said.

Rule said the database information was shared with West Virginia's Family Resource Networks (FRNs), which are local coalitions of people working to better meet the needs and improve services for children and families in their communities.

"It has always been our feeling that the library should be a place you can find all kinds of information, and we still strive to continue to do that, even today," she said. "We want people from all walks of life to be able to come here and get information they need without going from place to place to get it.

"One of the purposes behind information referral was to see what gaps we had in services in our community," she said. "When we started, there were gaps."

Rule said when the program began over 40 years ago, there was no domestic violence shelter.

"Branches Domestic Violence Shelter was established in Huntington, and we were also instrumental in establishing the food bank in Huntington as well," she said. "Harmony House was established and named after Harmony Phillips."

Rule said wherever a need was found in the community, the library got involved to try to help.

"We didn't have an agenda," Rule said. "We just wanted the betterment of our community."

Dealing with homelessness

The program also deals with homelessness. Roberts-Buchanan says in the 1983 case of Hodge v. Ginsberg, the West Virginia Supreme Court of Appeals determined "the term 'incapacitated adult' as defined in state code was intended by the Legislature to encompass indigent persons who, by reason of recurring misfortunes of life, are unable to independently carry on the daily activities of life necessary to sustaining life and reasonable health."

She said the high court determined that the lack of shelter, food and medical care, which poses a substantial and immediate risk of death or serious permanent injury to an incapacitated adult, is a valid reason for the intervention by the Department of Welfare (now the Department of Health and Human Resources) through the provision of adult services.

"The homeless policy said we will fund shelters across the state," she said. "West Virginia became the only state to guarantee all homeless individuals and families statewide the right to emergency shelter, food and medical care. This remains true to this day."

Roberts-Buchanan says the first homeless contract Information and Referral Services at the library received was from the state DHHR.

"It is for us to oversee that Supreme Court order, and we are still doing it," she said. "Since then we have received contracts with the Veterans Administration, the Bureau of Behavioral Health, Home for Good and two HUD grants and others to help with homelessness and providing shelter and housing."

She said in the past the only funding to address homelessness was for folks who were homeless.

"You had to be deeply homeless before you could get any help to not be homeless," she said.

Roberts-Buchanan says she wants to try to think outside the box and apply for grants that will help prevent homelessness from happening.

"I am trying to divert people from being homeless," she explained. "Now we work with families, landlords and others to work out situations that could lead to someone becoming homeless. We are forming a lot more permanent housing and programs, and everyone that is homeless doesn't need to go into a shelter. There are other ways we can deal with it and other places we can place people."

Roberts-Buchanan says she calls this idea "rerouting the path to homelessness" - "instead of taking people from the jail without any ID and dropping (them) at the City Mission and (them) becoming homeless, and then our homeless numbers go up because there was nobody on this end trying to work with them before they are discharged," she said. "It's not just the jails. Nobody else in the state has problems with folks being discharged from recovery houses, because they don't have any. They are all here. People get sent here because we have good services here."

Roberts-Buchanan says Huntington gets blamed for increasing numbers of homeless because of its good hospitals, recovery programs and other services for those in need.

"I am not dumping homeless people from one town to another," she said. "I am not sending them to be homeless somewhere else. We are going to try to help them."

Roberts-Buchanan said she and the library staff have a commitment to the philosophy of understanding the problems of those experiencing homelessness and taking realistic approaches to helping them.

"I don't care who has anything bad to say about our services and programs to help the homeless. I have many more good things to say about them," she said. "If we help them, we're going to be in better shape than we are if we don't help them. That's the way I look at it, and that's the way I will continue to look at it."

Rule says Huntington's homeless situation is not much different from most cities across the country.

"Libraries are open to the public, and homeless people do sometimes gravitate to the library to get warm when it's cold outside or to get cool when it's hot outside," she said. "Homeless people do use our Information and Referral Services. Many of these people do not have computers or are not connected to the internet. They come here to find out what services are available in the community or maybe to apply for a job online. We have had people that used to be homeless come in and thank us for helping them. I think it's really important for us to be here to help them. That makes it all worth it."

Hiring new caseworkers

Roberts-Buchanan says the Information and Referral Services program has six on staff, but also has two vacancies for coordinated entry supportive services caseworkers.

The caseworkers provide screening and assessment to individuals and families who meet the definition of imminently at risk of homelessness or fleeing domestic violence.

The Information and Referral Services at the Cabell library is funded by various grants from the city of Huntington, state DHHR, Veterans Administration, and other local, state and federal organizations and agencies.

"We work with all parties, including providers of temporary facilities and others, to create service plans that assure housing stability based on current situations," Roberts-Buchanan explained. "There is so much we do, including assisting participants in basic living skills and personal care habits, and just so much more."

The library also has a database to help those in need get Christmas baskets and Thanksgiving meals around the holidays.

"We don't give out the services here, but we're able to screen and register people here and we refer them so that there isn't duplication of services given to the same people," she explained. "We want to be good stewards of the community's resources and money and try to make sure we get the best use of them."

Roberts-Buchanan said she is driven by the desire to meet unmet needs.

"It's still what drives me today," she said. "We have a very good staff here that really cares about people in the community. They're working hard to help those that need help or need answers. That's what Information and Referral Services is about, and it's what it will continue to be about."

Information and Referral Services can be reached during regular business hours by calling 304-528-5660 or on the library's website at http://services.cabell.lib.wv.us.

Follow reporter Fred Pace at Facebook.com/FredPaceHD and via Twitter @FredPaceHD.

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