Long Island’s first library card program for homeless launches in Riverhead

Riverhead Free Library has become the first on Long Island to offer a card program for the homeless.

Called RiverHope, the program allows people who are part of Maureen’s Haven Homeless Outreach Program to receive a free library card, giving them access to everything the library has to offer.

This includes the opportunity to check out books and movies, use the library’s computers, participate in a variety of programs — such as yoga, cooking or informational sessions — and enroll in Universal Class, a free online program that offers classes in 32 subjects. Professional and certification courses as well as arts, crafts and hobby-type classes are also available through Universal Class.

The cards are known as EZ Learning Passes, and 17 of them been given out since circulation director Liz Stokes created the program in January.

“Gestures like this are so important in people’s lives, even if it only helps one person,” Maryann Gensler, Maureen’s Haven executive director, said. “It’s the fact that you’re affirmed, and the fact that somebody looks at you and takes you seriously. So it’s pretty exciting and it’s great and it’s generous of them and the community.”

Maureen’s Haven, on Lincoln Street, is an outreach center for homeless people in the Riverhead community. The center provides safe, warm temporary shelter for homeless individuals with the cooperation of houses of worship and volunteers from those churches. The group aims to provide the homeless with a place to sleep and a nutritious meal, as well as offer support by embracing the values of human dignity, respect, service, compassion, teamwork, diversity and love, according to the organization’s website.

Ms. Stokes said many Maureen’s Haven participants had asked if it was possible for them to use the library’s computers to look for jobs or sign up for programs while they were spending their days at the library. She said Maureen’s Haven participants often visit the library to read books, and use it as a shelter during the day.

This gave her the idea to look into issuing them their own library cards.

This isn’t the first time Ms. Stokes has created programs for different segments of the community. Named the News-Review’s Public Servant of the Year in 2008, she has implemented an annual food drive at the library; been a member of Council for Unity, which works to steer young people away from gangs and crime; helped recently released prisoners find jobs; and she helped create the town’s veterans advisory committee in 2014.

“Libraries originally were founded with the premise [that] reading and a library could change lives,” Ms. Stokes said. “That’s what it’s based on. Are we serving every part of our population? Every aspect?”

Kerrie McMullen-Smith, executive director at Riverhead Free Library, said Maureen’s Haven clients were happy to learn they could have their own cards, especially those who already frequented the library.

She said over the years homeless people would come in, read for hours and, because they couldn’t check out a book, would mark their spot and ask if the book could be held behind the reference desk until the next day.

“When they were going to whatever church they were staying at for the night they really had nothing to do,” Ms. McMullen-Smith said. “By having this card they are able to take out books or DVDs so when they go to stay the night they have something, whether they got together and watch a movie or read a book. Now they’re doing something engaging.”

Typically, in order to obtain a library card an individual has to provide documentation with a name and address, proving they’re a local resident, Ms. Stokes said. These standards are similar at libraries across the region.

RiverHope participants present the identification card given to them by Maureen’s Haven to obtain EZ Learning Passes, which are then kept in a book at the library circulation desk that reads “inspire, create, imagine.” Ms. Stokes said Maureen’s Haven acts as the property taxpayer and each individual who uses its services is then considered a resident of that address.

Unlike a regular library card, EZ Learning Passes are not incorporated in the Suffolk Library Systems. This means the cards work at only Riverhead Free Library.

Ms. Stokes has high hopes for the program, which was also inspired by Regina Calcaterra, who spoke at the library earlier this year. Her memoir, “Etched in Sand,” tells of her own homelessness and how she managed to persevere.

Although the program is in its early stages, Ms. Stokes said she’s already received positive feedback from EZ Learning Pass holders.

“The stories we’ve heard are incredible,” she said. “One man told me he had lost his business, lost his home. He felt like he was just part of the system. This was the first public place that made him feel welcome. He could use the computer, start looking for employment, take out books having to do with those careers and get back on his feet.”

The RiverHope program goes hand-in-hand with another project underway at the library. With the help of grants secured by Ms. McMullen-Smith, the library is now creating a room on the first floor dedicated to professional and academic success.

She said a staff member will be hired who can help residents prepare for exams — such as SATs, ACTs, GREs and LSATs — and apply for jobs, sign up for Universal Class and more.

“We want to be a part of the solution, not the problem,” Ms. Stokes said.

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Photo: Riverhead Free Library circulation director Liz Stokes holds the book in which she keeps EZ Learning Passes. The passes are library cards given to Maureen’s Haven participants, making Riverhead the first library on Long Island to offer a card program for homeless people. (Credit: Nicole Smith)