The Millennium Library was more Monday than a building full of books for Travis Flitt.
It was a refuge, a place to reconnect with family and an access point to services. Flitt, who is homeless and doesn’t have regular internet access, was sending emails and messages on Facebook to family and friends on a library computer.
"It actually feels awesome," said Flitt. "Somewhere to go during the day to relax and do whatever."
Winnipeg public libraries reopened for in-person browsing Monday for the first time since October, amid a recent provincewide easing of COVID-19 pandemic restrictions.
Flitt wasn’t a frequent library user before the pandemic, but he was ecstatic the service was open again — and not just because of the computer.
"It feels good and feels safe," he said, tilting his head forward and parted his hair with his fingers. His hair was matted in blood.
The wound was fresh. On Friday, on Main Street, "I got hit over the head with a freaking guitar for no reason," he said.
Flitt was understandably eager to change his situation. He was planning to use library computer access to help him find a place to live. Until then, he’ll be couch surfing.
"I go from the North End to the West End to find places to sleep," Flitt said, adding he feels unsafe in both areas.
With city libraries reopened, Flitt planned to spend as long as he could avoiding the streets.
Libraries are an important space for other vulnerable people, too.
"It feels good and feels safe." – Travis Flitt
On Monday, support worker Rajendra Subedar was accompanying a man with an intellectual disability at St. Boniface Library. Subedar’s client had just gotten his first library card and was exploring the bookshelves.
"He’s feeling great," said Subedar. "He’s excited about it."
For people with intellectual disabilities, libraries provide an important space to expand horizons and interact with people, said Subedar.
Money can be hard to come by for a population that must often rely on government funding, so having a free place to go and keep busy is crucial, he said.
And libraries can be perfect to help build self-confidence.
"I can teach them to use a computer, how to access certain kinds of information, how to the system to find materials and music," Subedar said.
The library calm can also be ideal for some clients, who may be overwhelmed in louder settings.
"You’ve got the environment where they can interact with the public, or people in general," he said. "It’s just about learning things like conducting yourself in a public space."
The man Subedar was assisting Monday was working toward visiting the library alone — a huge confidence boost, he said. "Beyond today and maybe a couple other visits, he’ll get to a point where he comes in on his own."
"You’ve got the environment where they can interact with the public, or people in general." – Support worker Rajendra Subedar
It serves another important function, not so much for people with disabilities but for those without, said Subedar. The more visible people with intellectual disabilities (or as Subedar put it, "individuals with special abilities") are, the more others see them as part of the community, "rather than those people that live over there, in that house."
Siloam Mission communications manager Luke Thiessen said the reopening of city libraries to in-person interaction was "wonderful news."
In his experience, libraries have provided a safe, and free, space for many people experiencing homelessness to access the internet, cool off, warm up, or just find a good book or other entertainment to pass some time.
Winnipeg manager of library services Ed Cuddy said staff were feeling "happy, excited and hopeful."
"This feels a lot different, obviously, because of the vaccination rate. So it’s feeling that hopefully this will be the last phase that will just continue to open more." – Manager of library services Ed Cuddy
After more than a year of varying phases of partial services, Cuddy had his fingers crossed the facilities would be open for good now.
"This feels a lot different, obviously, because of the vaccination rate. So it’s feeling that hopefully this will be the last phase that will just continue to open more."
However, at this point, much of the libraries’ programming will remain either outdoors or online at this time.
One major challenge Winnipeg’s libraries face is the loss of staff over the course of the pandemic lockdowns, he said. Many positions remain vacant due to retirements and job changes, Cuddy said.