On a recent Wednesday, Renee Hines sat at a table in D.C.’s Northwest One Library near Mount Vernon Triangle, ready to greet people experiencing homelessness who had lined up to see her.
Their challenges are familiar to Hines. She started abusing alcohol and drugs including cocaine and heroin from age 14. She was arrested a handful of times, for drug possession and theft.
After her most recent arrest in 1999, a judge sent her to a drug treatment program, where she got clean. She stayed that way until 2006, when she broke her leg in a car accident and got addicted to pain medications. She was homeless for more than a year, sleeping in her car for much of 2012 to 2014.
Today, thanks to substance abuse and mental health counseling, Hines is clean and living in an apartment in Southeast D.C.’s Marshall Heights neighborhood, where she grew up.
“I’m 56 years old,” Hines said. “I started getting my life together at 52.”
To her clients, she repeats often, “If I can do it, so can you.”
Hines is one of three peer outreach specialists who fan out across 11 D.C. libraries each week to connect the city’s most vulnerable residents to programs and services, and to lend a friendly face and sympathetic ear.
Some homeless visitors to the library, or outdoor spaces nearby, regularly seek her counsel and refer her to their friends.
Others are more reticent, or don’t realize they could use help. Hines simply greets them until they open up — however long it takes.
“I really don’t get on the subject of what you need [early on],” Hines said. “I’m just trying to have a conversation.”
Libraries in D.C. have long served homeless residents. Visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Library downtown was a routine for so many homeless residents that its closure for renovations in 2017 left hundreds of regular visitors adrift.
In 2014, the D.C. Public Library system hired Jean Badalamenti as assistant manager of health and human services to help the city’s 25 libraries better serve as a resource for the city’s roughly 6,500 homeless residents.
Early last year, she pulled three “peer specialists,” including Hines, from D.C.’s Department of Behavioral Health. The agency since 2004 has assembled a network of people certified to apply their experience with homelessness, substance abuse and other challenges to help people in similar circumstances.
Roughly a year and a half later, Badalamenti estimates the library system’s peer outreach specialists have helped between 10 and 15 homeless residents secure transitional or permanent housing, and 30 more clients have gone to stay in shelters.
Hines can rattle off her personal tally with pride: one in permanent housing, two in rapid rehousing, two in transitional housing, three in shelters and three in drug treatment programs.
She and her colleagues also help clients secure or renew their ID cards, access substance abuse and mental health services, and get around with the help of pre-loaded SmarTrip cards.
“My first day it was like, wow, I can give them something to look forward to,” Hines said.
D.C.’s homeless population has shrunk during each of the past three years, including a 5.5% decline from 2018 to 2019. Mayor Muriel Bowser ran in 2015 on a campaign promise of ending family homelessness in D.C. by last year and all homelessness in the city by 2025.
Her administration has shuttered the decrepit D.C. General shelter for homeless families citywide and is in the process of opening short-term family shelters in each ward. But those campaign targets remain elusive; according to the city’s annual homelessness count in May, 6,521 adults and 815 families remain unhoused.
The peer outreach program aims to serve those groups, but its scope is limited. Northwest One, for instance, doesn’t have a private office for Hines or her colleagues, so they meet with homeless residents out in the open. Last Wednesday, Hines chatted over an infant crying, children singing and patrons chattering.
Funding remains tight. The program this year got $91,000 from the city — enough to pay specialists $570 per week for 30 hours of work. Badalamenti hopes the D.C. Council will eventually expand the program to add another specialist, and to make Hines and her team full-time employees.
Badalamenti has seen indications of the program’s long-term growth. Libraries’ public safety employees have begun referring library visitors to Hines and her colleagues. Hines has heard lately from homeless residents who haven’t visited the library but know who she is. Badalamenti has fielded requests from other libraries for visits from the peer specialists.
Last Wednesday, Hines met with Leonard, a frequent visitor who likes sending Hines long text messages with updates on his life. He’s been homeless for a year, and has recently taken to scouting Craigslist and walking the streets looking for available housing. Leonard spoke to a reporter on the condition that his last name not be used.
Hines started meeting with Leonard last year, when he saw a flyer about the peer specialists at the Shaw Library. He got some help from her, then disappeared for a few months.
“I thought things were working out, and then I had a setback,” Leonard said. Now he visits her regularly, sometimes just to say hello.
Hines and Badalamenti offered Leonard a timeline of obligations for entering the city’s rapid rehousing program, including taking a vulnerability assessment survey at a D.C. shelter. “He is one that will keep his appointment,” Hines said with a laugh.
Leonard said he’s been staying at a shelter in Northwest, and keeping busy with volunteering and weekend computer classes. “I don’t want to be sitting around watching closed-captioned TV,” he said.
Hines reminded him of one of their early conversations: “Like I told you at the beginning, it’s a process.”
Express is one of eight D.C.-based news outlets dedicating coverage today to issues of homelessness in the nation’s capital. Visit DCHomelessCrisis.Press for more reporting.