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Downtown Tucson library creating safe space for homeless community

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TUCSON - A library in Southern Arizona is making it their mission to help those living on the streets in a unique way.

In November 2018, the Joel D Valdez Main Library started a program called “On the Streets” in hopes of creating a safe space for the homeless community to come for a meal and conversation about the resources available to them.

“I was almost to the point where I was oblivious it could ever happen to me and its happening to many people like me,” said Sherry Rials.

News 4 Tucson attended one of those meetings recently and met 57-year-old Sherry Rials.

“I’m part of this new group of people, I'm 57 who are finding themselves experiencing housing instability,” said Rials. “I don’t like the word homelessness because there is a stigma attached to that word and people are desensitized. I prefer the term housing instability and there are Americans who are one paycheck away from sleeping in their car.”

Sherry is a behavioral health specialist with a pre-law degree, but rising rent payments and medical bills compelled her to move from Seattle to Ajo. Rials was helping take care of her brother after an illness and she also suffered a personal illness.

“In less than three years I spent $50,000 in rent and utilities supporting two adults in Seattle,” said Rials.

A lack of affordable housing then forced her to pack up and move again from Ajo to Tucson.

If it wasn’t for her friend Georgia, Sherry said she would be out on the streets.

“She let me couch surf,” said Rials. "We all need to take a moment and realize how close we really are and what would it take? It used to be two paychecks away and for a lot of us now it is one because rent is so sky high.”

Rials is one of several people experiencing homelessness who decided to share their concerns with staff at the Joel A Valdez Main Library.

On the third Saturday of every month, people living on the streets come to the library to talk about the challenges they face every day.

“When we’re at the shelters, you get your stuff stolen,” said Chris Kilgore.

Chris Kilgore has been homeless for seven years. He said he isn’t looking for a hand out, just a little help getting back on his feet.

“I don’t have a problem getting a job. I have an id it is just getting housing. It is really hard to dig out of a wash and go to an interview,” said Kilgore.

These are the stories the library wants to hear.

"So often we don't get a chance to know them and hear people’s stories hear what they need,” said Kate DeMeester, Library Services Manager and Manager with Joel D Valdez Main Library.

They’re hoping through the On the Streets program they can continue building relationships with the homeless community while also keeping the library a safe place for everyone.

“It has changed how we're able to communicate together. We're able to understand each other better and it is really just of course it’s obvious you take time and take that moment to get to know someone it makes a huge difference,” said DeMeester.

Kate DeMeester said a book club for the homeless in North Carolina inspired her to come up with the program. She said it got them thinking about how to ask people what would be helpful and what types of services they would want.

For Sherry and Chris, it is a start, a place to come together as they work towards a better future.

“I think the library here and across the nation are doing an excellent job staying relevant tied to the communities and this is a space we can learn from eachother,” said Rials.

I think the library is trying to do something and I accept that and god bless them for that,” said Kilgore.

The library has a different speaker at these meetings every month covering a variety of topic, usually topics the homeless community chooses.

The meals are provided by Caridad Community Kitchen of the Community Food Bank.

Click here for more information on the On the Streets Program.

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Amanda Gomez

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