HANFORD — When Gail Lucas studied to become a librarian, there were plenty of classes on how to do research and how to manage a database.
But the Kings County Library’s Hanford branch manager wasn’t trained how to get people up off the floor, how to break up altercations, how to manage the sometimes difficult interactions with homeless residents, parolees and others who end up at the library as one of the few warm and sheltered places available in Kings County.
“Your average library assistant ... isn’t equipped to deal with that type of issue,” said Tanya Russell, library technology specialist.
Hanford’s only homeless shelter, a 29-bed, male-only facility known as Andy’s House, has a long waiting list and is facing funding problems that could force it to close.
Enter the Hanford library, which joins the Episcopal Church of the Saviour soup kitchen and the Social Security office as a downtown magnet for Hanford’s indigent population.
“In the past year or two, we’ve had an increase, unfortunately, in unacceptable aggressive behaviors,” Russell said.
Kings County supervisors recognized that trend on Tuesday by approving an inservice day for the staff at the Hanford, Lemoore, Corcoran and Avenal branches to deal with mental health and substance abuse issues. Those locations will be closed on Nov. 15 for the training, to be conducted by Kings County Behavioral Health staff.
Library staff are aware that Kings County has double-digit unemployment. They think it contributes to the problem.
“The overall economy has changed, and it has spillover [effects],” said Russell.
Another factor may be stepped-up police actions to dismantle homeless encampments. Hanford police have eliminated homeless camps on private property in recent months, likely driving more homeless into the Civic Park area.
The challenge has left library staff struggling to balance compassion with the need to maintain order.
Lucas said she got to know Richard Wellman, a Hanford homeless man who slept in the bushes by the library for weeks before he committed suicide last month by laying in the path of an Amtrak train.
“It’s a public, open institution,” Lucas said. “That’s one of the main roles. Whoever walks in that door is welcome.”
Wellman’s plight points to the mental health, alcoholism and addiction issues that many homeless face. Lucas said that library workers routinely refer needy patrons to social services in the area.
“It’s our job to meet that need to the best of our abilities,” Russell said.
Lucas is hoping that the inservice will help.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “It’s a first step, for sure.”
The reporter can be reached at 583-2432 and at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @SethN_HS.