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Peer navigators at the Penn North Library guide customers in recovery efforts

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR News
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Tiffinee Scott leads a Narcan training at the Penn North Library.

In a basement conference room at the Penn North Library, away from shelves of books and rows of computers, Tiffinee Scott teaches a group of people how to use Narcan. The medication is used to reverse opioid overdoses, which killed nearly a thousand Baltimoreans in 2020.

“When a person is unresponsive and not breathing, the first thing you want to do is get their attention similar to CPR,” she begins. If they remain unresponsive, call 911. After she walks through the other signs of overdose — clammy skin, blue lips — and explains the Good Samaritan Law, which protects people assisting in an emergency overdose situation from arrest, the group receives a few doses to have on hand if they witness an overdose.

The Narcan training is part of a pilot program that connects people to recovery services at the Penn North Library called Peer Navigators. Since December, peer navigators – that is, people with lived experience of substance use and recovery or mental health needs – are at the library every Tuesday. They sit behind a table advertising the program and walk around the building, greeting familiar faces and building trust. Since its launch, the program has connected about 120 people in an area considered an epicenter in Baltimore’s opioid crisis to recovery services.

“That's the beauty of meeting people where they are,” Scott said.

The building already hosts social workers, job services and lawyers. Library spokeswoman Meghan McCorkell says, customers need access to recovery services too.

“There's a recovery center across the street. We knew that people weren't going across the street because they didn't trust the people,” McCorkell said. “They didn't know the people inside that building. So what we found a way to do in the library is bring all of those resources into a place that people already trust.”

Donna Bruce, who serves on the steering committee for Healing City Trauma Informed Care Task Force and the Maryland Peer Advisory Council, works as a peer navigator. People struggling with substance use and with mental health needs already visit the library, she said – and they view it as a stigma-free safe space, where some are more willing to talk about recovery than they’d be to walk into the clinic across the street.

When people stop by her desk, Bruce leads them into a private room, where she flips the script by starting the conversation with her addiction history.

“I don't look anything like the face of addiction,” she said. “So people are looking like, ‘Wow, you did that.’ ‘Yes, I did.’ And then to share my lived experiences with them, now I have their attention.”

She tells people: I know what you’re going through – and I survived. Most people ask her: how?

“‘I'm glad you asked! Come into the library, let me show you!’ Right? So now you get that one on one guidance from somebody who has been there,” Bruce said.

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Emily Sullivan/WYPR
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Library customers receive Narcan training from volunteers in purple shirts.

Some people immediately want to be connected to recovery services, Bruce said. Others stop by to talk with her week after week, gradually building up trust before they ask her for help. Her daughter also works as a Peer Navigator, helping those impacted by family members’ addictions.

Their work is funded by Healing City Baltimore, a collaboration between the city and the Maryland Peer Advisory Council, which received a grant from the Open Society Institute. Councilman Zeke Cohen is behind legislation which helped create the pilot program; he wants to see it expanded to other library branches.

“We have to move away from the zero tolerance stigmatizing approach of trying to criminalize, lock people up, kick people out,” the Democrat said. “We need to bring people in.”

Bruce says the program is spreading by word of mouth and that new participants from other neighborhoods are coming by to see her.

“They want help and they want somebody to listen to them,” and that can be the difference between life and death, she said.

McCorkell of Enoch Pratt said the library system has the data to back up the program.

“We can see a shift in this community in this library. And hopefully people really see the value in that and they want to support the expansion,” she said.