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Library collaboration is a win for everyone

Ex-homeless people on staff aid patrons and the needy.

Library electrician Ezekiel Harrell (left) and building superintendent Paul McGeever go over plans before drilling into a wall to prepare the library for a planned cafe.
Library electrician Ezekiel Harrell (left) and building superintendent Paul McGeever go over plans before drilling into a wall to prepare the library for a planned cafe.Read moreJOHN COSTELLO / Inquirer Staff Photographer

You can't always tell who among the 3,000 daily patrons of the Free Library of Philadelphia's main branch lives in a home or on a park bench.

Dress is not always a giveaway; nor is demeanor.

But in the restrooms of the library, too often, you could tell.

Homeless people sometimes used the bathrooms to bathe. Or to wash their socks. Or just to rest for a spell.

The library reached out to Project HOME, a nonprofit agency that works with homeless individuals and families, about what to do. Brainstorming led to an innovative idea:

Why not hire formerly homeless people as restroom attendants? They could keep restrooms tidy while also steering homeless people to services.

That was a year ago.

Today, five men and six women work as restroom attendants at the main branch on Logan Square.

The program has been so successful that another collaboration is in the works: a cafe at the library that will be staffed not only by formerly homeless people, but also by teens in a special business-skills program run by Project HOME.

The "HOME Page Cafe" is set to open in February in a wide corridor off the main lobby, said Joseph McPeak, the library's interim director. It will serve coffee, pastries and sandwiches.

"This is another way we could help each other," McPeak said.

Project HOME has a city contract for $40,000 a year to employ the restroom attendants. McPeak said the library's union workers, represented by District Council 33, were "very enthused" about the venture and understood its value.

To get the cafe venture off the ground, Project HOME has received a $200,000 grant from Bank of America. The grant will pay to hire a full-time job coach and to renovate the space into a coffee bar with seating for 20 and several computer terminals.

Starbucks is donating coffee equipment, and Metropolitan Bakery is giving hands-on retail training at its store near Rittenhouse Square.

"This was a way for me and my partner, James Barrett, to give back in a way that makes sense," said Wendy Born, co-owner of Metropolitan Bakery. "Job training and jobs are the most important things you can give someone."

Jeannine Lopez, vice president of operations for Project HOME, said the agency did a lot of job training, with about a quarter of its staff being formerly homeless clients.

"But it's so much better when people can get beyond our walls and out into the community at large," she said.

One of the attendants is Valerie Edwards, 55. At one time, she lived at Women of Hope, a residence run by Project HOME for homeless women with mental illness.

Today, she lives independently and works 12 hours a week for $7.50 an hour as a restroom attendant.

A top-to-bottom renovation of the ladies' room, coupled with the presence now of attendants like Edwards, has turned the experience from "vile," as one library employee described, to pleasant. The bathroom is bright, clean and odorless.

By the door, Edwards has pamphlets from Project HOME that explain where people can turn for help.

Edwards said her role is to answer questions if someone asks, but not to push the issue.

Edwards wears a walkie-talkie around her neck that connects her directly to library security if she needs help. Her uniform is a navy blue Project HOME shirt with the motto: "None of us are home until all of us are home."

Edwards said that recently, a pair of women came in and wanted to use the sinks to bathe. She showed them a sign by the doorway: "No loitering, bathing, washing of clothes, undue delays, or any unlawful conduct."

Edwards, however, was able to steer the women to where to go to shower and get food.

"People have told me, 'I'm so glad you're here,' " Edwards said.

Tracy Young, 41, staffs the men's restroom. Like Edwards, he keeps the place looking tidy and offers help without forcing it.

"If they want to talk, they talk," he said.

He said one recent patron did have questions. He was part of a construction work crew from California. He had had a heart attack and during his hospital stay, his crew returned to California, leaving him stranded.

Young said he contacted an outreach team for Project HOME that was able to help the man get bus fare back to California.

"That made me feel very good," Young said. "It was a success story for me."

Lopez said that for many of the attendants, this was the first steady work they've had in years. A few have used the jobs as a stepping stone to better employment.

She said a recovering addict who had been living on the streets got a job as a restroom attendant and was able to use that to get back on his feet. He recently left the library to resume his work as a sheet-metal worker.

She said the new cafe venture would employ 10 teens, as well as 10 formerly homeless people.

The cafe will not have to pay rent and should be able to support its operation on revenues, Lopez said.

Of the collaboration with the library, she said, "I'm thrilled it's grown into another venture."

"Because of our presence there, the library thought of us when they had a need for an Internet cafe," Lopez said.