Lucy Collins is a librarian who worked at the Spruce Avenue Library for three years. She was employed there for the first year-and-a-half of the Covid pandemic.
Libraries are essential services
In March 2020, governments around the world issued lockdown orders. All non-essential services were closed from March 15 to June 15. Libraries, sometimes referred to as one of the last places people can access for free, also closed. Because they are a free and accessible resource in communities, the number of services they offer to people from all socio-economic populations is significant.
Collins said, “When you go to the downtown library, there is a long row of computers and you can see what people are accessing. They are accessing really basic stuff. They’re not playing games—they’re accessing day-to-day life, like email, that most people just take for granted.”
She continued, “Right now the computers are all accessible with unlimited time as long as there’s computers available. If someone asks, we just extend the time. But for a period of time [in the early days of the pandemic], you only [got] an hour a day because of spacing considerations. That was really hard for people, because there’s a lot of people who don’t have a phone. They don’t have any other way to contact friends or family outside of Facebook Messenger.”
Collins and the other staff worried about the people who regularly used the library for basic connection. They wondered how people were functioning. “I can’t imagine living without that kind of accessibility.”
After Collins returned to work at Spruce Avenue Library, she saw the continued decline in orderliness of the community. While the Covid pandemic exacerbated the situation, a combination of factors led to negative changes, especially funding cuts in accessible services.
Collins’ previous job was at the Highlands Library on 118 Avenue. She remembered hearing about an association specifically for sex trade workers who were transitioning away from that work. “There was a place where you can connect them to people who will help them, set them up in an apartment, job, and wardrobe.” She stated, “It doesn’t exist anymore.”
(Budget cuts made by the UCP government between 2019 and 2021 include $2 billion less for health care, $1.4 billion less for education, $100 million less for community and social services, $100 million less for childrens’ services, and $72 million less for seniors and housing.)
“Now you’re lucky if you can even get [help], especially with Covid. Even a place like Bent Arrow. That’s an amazing community resource, but now they can only do it online. Well, who the hell can do online or phone appointments?”
She said at the library, “we don’t even have a phone that people can use. How are they supposed to talk to someone? Are you going to do an online meeting? You have to have a computer with a video camera. [People] don’t even have access to counselling services.”
The impact of the economic downturn in 2014 was still rippling through the economy when Covid hit. “You see the impact that it had on kids in a community like ours.”
She continued, “Even a couple years ago, pre-Covid, Crystal Kids was the only program I can think of that was in existence in our neighbourhood. They were run entirely by volunteers—workers who were there everyday. [Library staff] would show up and do tech programming.”
“In the meantime, these young volunteers are cooking meals and supervising kids for after school care. And now, I don’t think it’s operating. They had kids from Grades 1 to 8. They had a lot of kids—so many kids—and those kids were getting fed supper.”
“Some kids come here everyday, in the summer in particular. From the minute you open to the minute you kick them out.” Collins laughed, “We’re like, go home, eat lunch, come back in two hours.” As a community librarian, Collins said, “We always worry, because we have kids who we see regularly, and then you don’t. Then you see them again, and it’s like, ‘Oh, dear, what did you fall into?’”
Some customers complained about children being on the computers, especially when the library had a one hour use policy. They would say, “I don’t want to have to wait in line while that kid is wasting an hour.”
Collins would tell the adult patrons, “This is egalitarian computer usage. Everybody gets one hour, including [children]. You don’t get to criticize how they spend that hour.We actually started becoming really protective of this.”
The equity of time usage continued through Covid when there were restrictions on how many people could be in the library. “People would be so mad, saying, ‘I should be allowed to come in to browse for a book, because that’s a proper use of space. But that guy sitting on the computer on Facebook is taking up my spot.’”
The drug poisoning epidemic
Collins saw people in various states of wellness. “[One week] they’re kind of clean and look like they had connected with some service where they got a shower and got some clothes. Then two or three weeks later, you see them again, and they’re a disaster.”
She continued, “A lot of people we regularly see, we see the fluctuations. One week they come in and say, ‘I have my life together. I’m gonna get a job’ and they ask for help making a resumé. And then two months later [you see them and think], ‘Oh no, you’ve lost 20 pounds and haven’t eaten.’”
The drug poisoning epidemic coincided with the Covid pandemic. There was a significant spike in fentanyl poisoning deaths in the second quarter of 2020, which coincided with the lockdown. When the lockdown was over, staff at the library were given Naloxone kits to deal with the overdoses.
One week, four people were dying from opioid overdoses near the library. “There was someone who died behind the corner store, and the shop owner found them. Nobody cares. There’s literally zero response [from the government or the police].”
(According to Moms Stop the Harm, the result of drug prohibition is the development of cheaper, increasingly concentrated drugs. Fentanyl, which is found in toxicology results in 94 per cent of all overdose death cases, is 50 times as potent as heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine. This higher concentration makes it harder to dose and significantly increases the overdose risk. When borders were closed during Covid, drugs were highly contaminated with other byproducts and overdose rates rose to unprecedented levels. Fentanyl is fast acting, staying in the bloodstream for a short time period, so is used more frequently. This further increases the overdose risk, and makes it harder for people to seek treatment and find recovery.)
Collins said she feels there is a lack of support in addressing the significant social problems that affect the neighbourhood. She had several encounters with the police that were less than positive. Once, an argument between a couple using the library escalated to the point where the woman was being physically assaulted. Collins called the police, and an officer responded with, “Is someone in danger?”
Collins said, “This is what they always ask us. ‘Is someone currently in danger?’”
Collins responded, “Well yes, she’s being physically assaulted!”
The officer then said, “You have to give a description. OK, is she safe? Is there something you can do?”
Collins responded, “Right now she’s inside. He’s coming and going, obviously waiting for her to come out.” While Collins was on the phone, the woman got up to leave the library, and the officer asked, “Have they left the building?”
Collins felt the weight of what she felt was a mistake in her communication. “And me stupidly, I say they’re headed north down 95th Street.” The officer responded, “Oh, OK. Well, we’re not gonna worry about it then.”
“Click,” Collins said.
“They’re headed north down 95th Street and I was just describing to you [the police] how she’s being physically assaulted. And now you’re really happy that they’ve left because now you don’t have to come. If I was phoning from St. Albert or Sherwood Park or Riverbend, you would have already dispatched someone.”
Collins shared other encounters. “There’ve been incidents where I arrived [to work] in the mornings and there’s people outside in the parking lot and the police were talking to them. A couple times I stopped and got out of my car and stood there watching. Two times now where the police saw me watching, they got in their car [and left].”
She continued, “I remember this one time, the man was very obviously not drunk, not high, but just sitting there with his belongings. I’m like, ‘Are you OK? Is everything OK? And he said, ‘They were just fucking harassing me.’”
“The fact that they got in their car and laughed when they saw me watching them.” Collins wondered, “What are you doing in this neighbourhood? Are you helping people? Because it doesn’t seem like you are.”
Collins said, “Staff where I work respond to probably two emergencies a week. Whether it’s having to call medical services or personally having to give Naloxone. That’s an epidemic, and there’s no response.”
A few months after this interview, a library patron threatened Collins with rape* while she was at work. She moved to another library branch in a neighbourhood with fewer social problems. Later, Collins was infected with Covid and now suffers from long-Covid, which has impacted her ability to work.