Walk into any of the 100 library branches located in Toronto, Ont., and a wealth of knowledge is at your fingertips. Books, desktop computers, and helpful staff are on every floor, and all you need to access them—for free—is a library card.
The Toronto Public Library system (TPL) is the largest neighbourhood-based library system in the world, boasting over 10 million circulating titles available to readers. If that wasn’t enough, the TPL is also known for providing cutting-edge services to patrons, from light therapy to online movie streaming.
On any given day, patrons from all walks of life can be found taking advantage of these amazing resources. At least, they could—until COVID-19 shut them out.
In March, when Ontario Premier Doug Ford ordered the emergency shutdown of all non-essential services in the province, the TPL was forced to temporarily close, along with all other provincial public libraries. For the foreseeable future, in-person library services as we once knew them are on hold.
Many residents are frustrated that borrowing books isn’t as easy under COVID-19 restrictions. To them, a closed library is an inconvenience. But for people experiencing homelessness in Toronto, being able to access library services is often crucial.
The TPL, with its myriad of downtown locations and diverse clientele, makes a point of helping visitors experiencing homelessness. In fact, the organization has tailored programs and services towards low-income individuals who rely on its locations for shelter, washrooms, internet access, and more. It’s one of the many ways the TPL works to adapt its offerings to the needs of different patrons—not only homeless individuals, but newcomers to Canada, English language learners, and small business owners.
Some of the TPL’s workshops teach patrons how to write résumés and succeed in interviews. A different program lets users register for free one-on-one adult literacy tutoring sessions. Visitors can also sign up to learn about basic computer use and Microsoft Office.
According to Aly Velji, the manager of adult literacy services with the TPL, helping marginalized users is a no-brainer for the organization.
“Libraries have always been there to support everybody, especially individuals who are facing barriers,” he told The Pigeon in an interview.
One barrier the TPL is committed to reducing is the lack of internet access for homeless and low-income Torontonians. Depending on the branch, patrons can reserve desktop computers or sign out laptops, connect to WiFi, and print and scan documents.
For Jordan Green, a Toronto resident and Canadian Armed Forces veteran, the TPL was one of the main resources he used while experiencing homelessness for seven months in 2019.
Green lost his job as a technical writing contractor a few years ago, and moved in with his parents soon after. That’s when he learned that his father had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease.
“The first time I saw my mom [again], I knew where things were going,” Green said. “My mom was in the bathroom with my dad […] she was bathing him because he forgot how to shower. He forgot how to clean himself.”
Shortly after Green moved in, his mother passed away from a stroke. Green, who was working out of nearby incubator service VentureLAB to start his own business, became his father’s primary caretaker.
“I was able to get a […] personal support worker [to help me] twice a week,” he said. “That gave me a chance to take a break and get out of the house, and every now and then go to the incubator and try and focus on making things better for us.”
After nearly two years of living together, Green was able to get his father placed in a care home. He then moved to an apartment in midtown Toronto, but financial and mental health issues kept Green from thriving.
“I didn’t really know at the time I was depressed,” he said. “The bills kept coming in, I wasn’t really making any money, and my inheritance was running out […] I couldn’t pay my rent.”
On July 2, 2019, Green—and his dog, Joey—officially became homeless.
That’s when Green first visited a nearby TPL location for help, using the branch’s free WiFi to make phone calls.
“I went to the library, and I called up 311 and told them my situation,” Green said. “They connected me with [Central Intake], which is the arm of Toronto social services that manages the shelter system.”
Green was put on the list for Margaret’s Housing and Community Support Services’ Toronto East location, one of the few shelters in the city that allows dogs. While he felt fortunate to have a place to sleep, Green said the shelter’s daily schedule was jarring at first.
“Every day you have to be there at 3:00 p.m. to get on the bed list, and you have to be back by 8:00 p.m. to get a bed,” he said. “Our beds were [rubber mats] on a concrete floor.”
While Green was appreciative of the shelter’s services, from hot meals to hot showers, he feared becoming one of the 36 per cent of homeless Torontonians who remain without housing for more than a year.
“I realized I had to get my stuff in order,” he said. “I started to ask around [for resources], and I started to help out at the shelter.”
“I would go to the library to cool off [and use the internet],” Green said. “I’d go through all the benefits that people on welfare could get through social services and I started to make a list of things I could take advantage of to help me get off the streets.”
In September, two months after losing his apartment, Green began sharing his story online. Using his Twitter account, “Homeless in Toronto,” Green described the shelter system, his day-to-day struggles, and his thoughts.
“I started to tweet my story and I guess […] I was the first person who was tweeting his experiences live from a homeless shelter. That’s how CBC picked it up.”
Green continued to Tweet about his experiences with homelessness until Jan. 2020, when Veterans Affairs Canada helped him to secure an apartment in the North York area with Toronto Legion Homes. Not only was Green able to have a place of his own again, but his neighbours were other veterans.
“People here are really remarkable,” he said. “Most of them are ex-military […] It’s kind of like a brotherhood.”
Looking back on his time experiencing homelessness, Green believes that the TPL’s free services, especially the ability to use online resources, allowed him to find housing so quickly.
“[One] life saving service of the library is the basic internet, so I could connect to the outside world,” he said. “I could connect with Veterans Affairs Canada, or I could connect with my caseworker, or I could connect with Ontario Works […] you don’t always have Wi-Fi available [at shelters].”
“You don’t think about the library [as] offering something that’s […] essential, but it really does.”
COVID-19 has only increased the public demand for accessible internet services, especially for low-income households who may need the internet to complete online courses for school, or to access resources like the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB).
Velji said providing internet access and online resources has quickly become a foundation of library services, right alongside book lending.
“One of the key things that I find great about libraries is the digital access,” Velji said. “Every one of our libraries has free WiFi […] so anybody can use our spaces and get access to our WiFi.”
Apart from providing internet access, the TPL’s locations can also act as temporary shelter for individuals experiencing homelessness. They’re cold in the summer, warm in the winter, and place no limits on the duration or frequency of patrons’ visits. In addition, libraries typically have clean public washrooms and cold water fountains.
For a person with nowhere else to go, the library is a perfect place to sit down, read a book, and take a break from the outside world.
According to Velji, the TPL is constantly working to improve how it responds to the needs of marginalized patrons, including low-income individuals, persons with disabilities, and Indigenous visitors.
“We [hired] a social worker to be able to bring their knowledge and expertise into the work that we do,” he said. “What we wanted to do was look at how we can change how we develop our programs, how we train our staff, how we respond to needs, and so forth.”
“We’ve been able to look at things from a wider perspective and have a greater impact on our organization.”
In addition, the TPL is expanding its library services outside of its official locations, connecting with individuals experiencing homelessness at new levels.
Before COVID-19, a new initiative saw librarians visiting shelters directly to loan out books and inform homeless individuals about the TPL’s available resources.
“We’re embedding librarians within the social services,” Velji said. “Instead of expecting everyone to come to us, we’re meeting them at their point of need.”
Velji hopes more users will begin to see the value of libraries beyond lending books, as the TPL continues to explore how it can design programs innovatively.
“We are definitely [providing] more than just books,” he explained. “The library is, in a lot of ways, a community hub and a place for people to connect […] we’re constantly evolving to meet the needs of our patrons.”
Though COVID-19 may have halted many of the TPL’s social resources, with some in-person library services slowly starting to return in early July, the organization has adapted many of its programs to suit a socially-distant world. The TPL has introduced a variety of initiatives for its patrons, including online activities for kids, digital loans, and drive-by book pick-up times.
In terms of helping low-income and homeless patrons during COVID-19, Velji said the organization is taking on new projects to continue helping Toronto’s vulnerable populations.
“Within a few weeks [we] opened up a number of our locations to serve as food bank locations,” he said. “We were able to offer our spaces, and our staff were there to hand out food packages and food hampers to families.”
Velji also said that the TPL donated almost 1600 withdrawn books to local shelters.
“One of the things [shelters] were struggling with was programming because everyone has to be socially isolated—they weren’t able to do group programming.”
With most TPL buildings still closed due to COVID-19, Green worries about how Toronto’s vulnerable populations are coping with the current heat wave in southern Ontario.
Green’s time in Toronto’s shelter system showed him the value of finding refuge from Ontario’s extreme weather. The first shelter he was placed in had no air conditioning, even in the middle of the summer.
“In a heatwave like we’re experiencing now, [homeless people need] air conditioning,” he said.
“People would stand outside the shelter […] on a day like this, that feels like 40 degrees, to cool off. The shelter was just so hot,” he said. “Air conditioning is a really essential thing because you could get heatstroke very easily in the shelters.”
While Green would frequently spend hot days cooling off at the library, COVID-19 means people experiencing homelessness currently have fewer options for heat relief.
The City of Toronto has introduced an interactive map displaying cool spaces in the city open to the public, many of which are Emergency Cooling Centres. From the Riverdale Park wading pool to the East York Civic Centre, Torontonians who are unable to avoid the risky heat have some options for relief.
To Green, however, nothing beats the welcoming atmosphere of his local library.
“Once you become homeless, you really do start to disconnect from the world around you,” Green said. “I think the library provided that lifeline that kept me connected to the world, not just because I could, you know, access the internet […] But I could call people, I could email people. I was around other people that weren’t necessarily homeless.”
“The library connected me to the world again.”