As a child growing up in New Haven, Vera Pate never had time to go to the public library on Elm Street. And between technical college and starting a 30-year career as a secretary, Pate had no need for the library’s books or programs. But in 2007, her father suffered a massive stroke and she quit her job to help take care of him in North Carolina.
Nine months since she returned to New Haven, Pate still has not found a job — and now spends every day in the New Haven library reading novels and, when she can get on a computer, searching and hoping for new opportunities.
“When I came back here, I found that it was hard to find a job,” Pate said. “And so I actually used the library to post my resume on Monster and Careerbuilder.com.”
Pate, 50, is not alone in her plight, as the economic downturn has taken the jobs of other middle-aged New Haven locals as well. In response, residents are cashing in on one of the few truly public institutions left in town: the New Haven Free Public Library. Complimentary Internet and free advice are especially valuable for job-seekers, as the library’s five branches scramble to help the local community cope with the recession.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the state saw its unemployment rate top 7 percent last December — which has not happened since 1992 — and lost over 11,000 jobs from last November. And as of December 2008, when the library took its most recent tally, the door count across all five branches increased 18 percent over the past year.
Library and community programs, such as computer classes and book discussions, that took place between July and December 2008 expanded by over 40 percent as compared to the same time period in 2007. Attendance at programs increased by about 30 percent as well.
Seth Godfrey, a business librarian at the main branch, said all patrons, including the unemployed, regard the library as a safe gathering place to regroup and network.
“Hopefully the stimulus will work very soon. A lot of people are ready to work, and that’s what’s so frustrating,” Godfrey said. “As Obama says, ‘Yes We Can’ and ‘Yes We Will.’ ”
Still, he wondered, “What’s the next step?”
For newcomers like Pate, the first step was registering for a library card, which was exactly what she did after returning to New Haven last May. But other residents, like Wycliffe Brown, 48, have frequented the New Haven Free Public Library at 133 Elm Street all their lives.
Most of the unemployed library regulars set up camp downstairs, where the library has its computer clusters. That’s where Brown was, sitting at a computer console and eyeing the clock that limits his time on the Internet to two hours. Before noon on a Wednesday afternoon, he had already been searching for and applying to jobs for over an hour. He has been visiting the library at least twice a week since he lost his job at the Salvation Army store on Crown St. last October. For Brown, the most disheartening part is the continual rejection.
“Anything at entry level, I just want to get in somewhere and do something,” he said. “I’m tired of doing the same old thing, with no money coming in … Thank God I got a place to rest my head at night, I got clothes on my back, I got food.”
Were it not for his sister, who also lives in New Haven, Brown would be homeless, he said. Pate also cannot pay rent on her own — she is living indefinitely with a friend. But both Brown and Pate said they are not aimless in their search for jobs: They are computer literate, have résumés ready to distribute to potential employers and refuse to give up.
Expanded library and community initiatives — which range from workshops on writing cover letters and résumés to career fair events and micro-loan programs — are helping job-hunters maximize their chances of landing a job.
Last month, the library created a Jobs Task Force to explore more ways to expand its jobs-related services. The group consists of about 20 members, including branch managers and business librarians from across the library system.
Most recently, the Jobs Task Force arranged for the Connecticut Department of Labor to bring its “Career Express” Bus — an RV with several onboard computer workstations and career assistance resources — for one day to each of the five library locations. Anyone can walk on without an appointment for counseling and one-on-one help with job applications. Pate said she had her resume fixed up when the bus stopped in New Haven earlier this month.
Some library regulars are searching for jobs outside New Haven. One patron, who requested anonymity to conceal her name from friends in the Yale community, said she has been unemployed since last February. She is only applying to jobs in New York City, where she said there are more opportunities, and she takes the MetroNorth into the city at least once a week to visit temporary and permanent employment agencies. She said she only uses the library for computer access, as she is working on a digital photo project for her own enjoyment.
“What else can you do, you know? So I’m collecting,” she said, referring to her unemployment pay. “I think New York is good — better than Connecticut, when it comes to unemployment.”
Kathy Hurley, the library’s spokeswoman, said the economic climate has also caused some worry about its upcoming yearly Mardi Gras fundraiser. The library relies on proceeds from the event to expand its books collection and programming, as well as to help keep its entire smorgasbord of offerings completely free and open to the public. The fundraiser is tomorrow and, at this time last year, the library had sold about 180 tickets at $75 apiece; this year the count is at about half that, Hurley said.
But perhaps the library can learn from its patrons: Brown and Pate have faced rejection after rejection for months, but still, they keep trying. Since last August — while he was still working at the Salvation Army store — Brown applied to and was rejected from over 30 positions for which he said he was qualified at the Bridgeport, Greenwich and Yale-New Haven hospitals. The jobs ranged from custodial services to delivering meal trays to hospital patients.
“You’ve got no choice. You got to keep going,” Brown said. “I need to bring in some money.”