The Boys & Girls Club of Albany had a full house on Thursday.
More than 50 organizations crowded into the building, lining tables with sweatshirts, snacks, eyeglasses, wallets and pamphlets, all free for the taking. The advice was free, too, for veterans looking for housing, low-income individuals looking for job connections and homeless people looking for the bare necessities.
Just past the table offering free haircuts, Elizabeth Sonstegaard and Millie Barriger sat behind a table that had just one thing to offer: books. The pair of Albany librarians were manning a table at the HEART to Heart Resource Fair, now in its 14th year, which provides resources for individuals and families living in poverty in Linn County.
The public library, in a crowd of Department of Human Services, homeless shelters and free clothing closets, may have seemed out of place, but Sonstegaard said it fit right in.
“We serve everyone,” she said. “And we have a lot of resources.”
Those resources include access to computers, information, air-conditioning on a hot day and heat for a cold day.
“A lot of people are looking for a place to go,” Sonstegaard said.
The library doesn’t just offer a shelter to those experiencing homelessness, it also offers services that have become essential needs in the age of technology.
It’s no longer standard practice for businesses to offer paper applications or to accommodate job-seekers who are pounding the pavement looking for work and knock on potential employers' doors without an appointment.
“Even Burger King wants you to fill out an application online,” Sonstegaard said. “You need a password and an account.”
A lot of people, Barriger added, don’t have personal computers or an internet connection. Cellphones that can access the internet often do so by using data, which is capped by some monthly plans; surpassing that cap can lead to extra fees.
You don’t need a library card to use the library’s computers, Sonstegaard said. They can be accessed with a daily log-in, or people can opt for a computer use card, which allows them to keep the same log-in without having to sign in as a guest every day. Barriger noted that the Albany Public Library does not require a photo ID for computer use.
According to Sonstegaard, the entire library staff recently completed a three-hour training called “The Librarian's Guide to Homelessness: An Empathy-Driven Approach to Solving Problems, Preventing Conflict, and Serving Everyone.”
“The goal is that our staff is better prepared and empowered to serve all of our patrons while remaining an inclusive and welcoming community space,” Sonstegaard said.
Better serving patrons and families was a common theme for service providers at Thursday’s fair. Representatives from various organizations zig-zagged their way from one side of the room to the other, gathering information to relay to the people they serve.
“The HEART fair is a networking opportunity, too,” said TeSee Huston, who works for the Department of Human Services. “It’s a way to see what other resources are out there for our families to help them more.”
The East Albany Lions Club was also out on Thursday providing free vision screenings and blood glucose tests.
Ray Ryan and Ed Lupkin, with 18 combined years in the club, manned the table and said they had already seen 12 people line up for tests about 30 minutes into the fair.
On the opposite side of the room, the “military zone” offered help from St. Vincent DePaul’s Homeless Veteran Reintegration Program.
“We help them with employment, finding housing and we’ll purchase clothes, shoes, bikes. A few of our guys got their CDL licenses,” said Susan Scherer, the program’s outreach coordinator. “They just need a little help.”
The Albany Homeless Engagement and Resource Team and Community Services Consortium hosts the fair each year. According to Marilyn Smith, communications officer for the city, about 120 people attended the event on Thursday, slightly down from prior years that averaged 130 to 150 and as many as 210. Signs of Victory Ministries provided bus rides to individuals from various pick-up points around the city and breakfast and lunch were also served; the city provided lunch and Jacopetti’s catered breakfast.
Other services offered Thursday included dental checkups and extractions, syphilis tests, haircuts, clothing, bicycle repair, reading glasses, information on housing, rent or utility assistance, alcohol and drug treatment, pet supplies and snacks.