Column: Community Living Room
As I walk around downtown, I continually find myself recollecting the eight or so years that my family was homeless. Two aspects of downtown usually evoke this time, one, of course, being the large homeless population present, and the other being the Forsyth Country Central Library.
With this, as the weather shifts and temperatures drop, I continually think more and more of those having nowhere to go for refuge, of those with no place of their own to get warm and feel the safety of a home. Considering my experience, I discover myself being more and more cognizant of the realities of those suffering from either homelessness or housing insecurity.
Given the lack of daytime shelters, libraries often serve as a daytime shelter of sorts; this is especially true for Winston-Salem. While Sylvia Sprinkle-Hamlin, Director of Libraries in Forsyth County, didn’t experience homelessness herself, she understands the role the library plays in serving the homeless community. Sprinkle-Hamlin calls herself a “child of the library” considering she spent so much time of her youth in her local library. College and beyond, Sprinkle-Hamlin found herself immersed in libraries and working with the community, and since 2000, she has served as the director for all libraries in Forsyth County.
“People feel free to come here and use our equipment and space. We have something for everybody,” says Sprinkle-Hamlin. “We are proud that we can open our doors to the homeless population.”
While people sometimes complain of the homeless presence at the library, Sprinkle-Hamlin says: “They are not the people who give us problems. It is usually those who aren’t homeless sometimes.”
Sprinkle-Hamlin made sure to make apparent that the homeless population is no different than those of us with homes. While they are down on their luck, they are still part of our community, says Sprinkle-Hamlin. With her philosophy in play at all ten libraries in the county, she sees each library playing the role of a “community living room.” Right on the second floor of the Central Library sits Sprinkle-Hamlin’s office overlooking the downtown Winston-Salem “living room.”
For many years, the library was my living room. But as the night came, we had to leave. During those years, we primarily spent our nights in the car. While I really can’t remember how many days we slept in our cream-colored 1985 Nissan Maxima, I will always be able to recall the cold that never seemed to disappear. The end of our night would start as we drove around the city to determine where we could park and have no problems for the upcoming night– often in parking lots either at the Walmart on Jonestown Road or Novant Health Forsyth Medical Center
At first, the car would be on and the heat on full blast, but then my father would have to turn the car off and recline his seat back. My mother would do the same, but she would first wait for our dog Juliet to lay behind her seat. I would put on my pajamas and lay down in the back seat as my mother covered me with a blanket. As I pet Juliet, I would tell my family that I loved them more than anything, and I would hope to fall asleep before the heat dissipated from the car. Sometimes I did; other times it was too cold to even fall asleep.
My family’s story of homelessness, while unique in specifics, is not rare. While we all have different paths, those suffering from homelessness know the pain of the reality we find and/or found ourselves in. While my family no longer suffers from homelessness, many in our community still do. Just as for my family, the library serves as a place of refuge and safety for the homeless population.
Given the strong presence of homeless individuals downtown, for many Winston-Salemites, seeing displaced individuals panhandling on the side of the road or wandering the downtown sector is not uncommon. With this, in May of 2018, The United Way of Forsyth County ran a count to estimate the number of homeless individuals at the time. Their total after the tally was 440 individuals without homes. Finding a more accurate record of homeless individuals is often challenging considering the more mobile nature of those struggling. Not only this, but the count is limited in that it only records the number of those openly homeless and not those in transit housing, in the process of eviction or those living cars. Considering this, the number is most likely higher.
Nonetheless, the numbers don’t tell the full story– the fact is there are many of our fellow community members in anguish. And while downtown has seen an influx of wealth with urban revitalization, there are still countless individuals downtown with nowhere to go. Considering the lack of their own space, the major congregate sites for the homeless are the corner of Trade St. and Fourth St., the bus station and the Forsyth County Central Library.
Considering the concentration of homeless at the library, Jose Perez Jr. was hired in 2015 as the “Certified Peer Support Specialist.” His role at the library is to, as Sprinkle-Hamlin describes, “to serve as someone to be present for those in need of advice on getting a job or finding a place to stay.”
Perez himself was homeless for many years, so he knows the plight of many of those he serves. From a library patron himself, he has become a vital resource for those still homeless. While he looks forward to work every day, Perez did say, “(The library) is a great place, but it could always be better. While there have been strides, there is still such a long way to go.”
What Perez is talking about here is the strong stigma that still stands from other community members towards the homeless. Not only this, but Perez hopes our city can better support those in need structurally as well as emotionally. The way to do this is by “bridging gaps between people,” says Perez.
Pushing back against the stigmas and biases towards the homeless is an issue within itself. But like Perez, barista “LB” sees the pivotal role of the community to really change it for the better. While LB is are his Initials, he uses them for his name. He has been a barista at the small café at the entrance of the library for just over a year now and is well known by all who enter. As I sat in the café watching, LB said hello and talked to everyone who walked by, no matter their appearance or background, he was present with them.
“The library is a place of refuge for anybody…everyone comes here for a piece of solitude or peace because it feels welcoming to everybody,” says LB. “I take pride in being a cornerstone here.”
LB treats all those who enter with respect and dignity because he knows everyone has their own story and woes. He wants those who are often treated like less to never feel that way while at the community living room. While there are obviously homeless people, what I love is that people’s stories aren’t assumed and they are recognized as just another patron of the library.
For LB, the Central Library is a place of growth and a microcosm of a community that he loves. Even though he wishes more people came, the community present is something he relishes in. However, he still sees problems here, one of them being people’s stigmas against the homeless and lack of understanding of what LB calls, “the dynamics of the library.” LB says he sees how some people look at the homeless and felt the need to express to me what he saw as one of “the problem(s) of our world.” “I talk to people every day, and people have a choice. You can either walk by them (the homeless) like you don’t know them or embrace them like a human being.”
The Central Library has and still is particularly special for me because I felt seen and treated not as an outsider, but a community member and human while there. Because of the atmosphere produced at the library, I have vivid memories to this day of the great days I spent there. This being said, I still have memories that are painful because the reason we even went to the library is that we had nowhere else to go. Nonetheless, my family found a place of refuge with no shame at the library, a place to escape even for a little bit in a book, movie or through the internet. We would often stick together during our time using the ample resources around us. My father would primarily use his allotted time on the computers to search for employment while my mother and I would read and work on my school work. Sadly, Juliet would be in the car patiently waiting for her family to return.
My favorite days were those where we would walk to the snack room before leaving and sip on hot chocolates together. Those were some of my dearest days back then because I felt normal. I would get to be a regular kid going to the library with my parents feeling no shame or judgment from others.
While Winston-Salem has many organizations striving to help the homeless population, from shelters to community centers, the Central Library stands alone in its power to build a connection between all community members and assist those in need. My families experience with the library is not sole and continues to serve a parallel role for many. For it is not just a shelter — it is a community.
Perez summarizes the library’s role for the homeless as, “a place to be a part of society, a place void of alienation, safe from the weather but mostly to give hope and something to look forward to.”