Alicia Kwande, LCW
Pikes Peak Library District
~ Colorado Springs
"You Can't Judge a Book by it's Cover"
by: Stacie S. Gonzalez
Most days you’ll find Alicia Kwande, 38, meandering through the stacks at Penrose Library in downtown Colorado Springs, keeping a watchful eye on the sea of patrons who sit comfortably in chairs and at desks. She smiles, says hello, and is a calming presence for anyone who wants to chat or needs help finding a resource. One might wonder how Kwande ended up practicing social work in a library, so the Springs Echo sat down with her to find out.
Hi Alicia, it’s a pleasure to speak with you today. For people who haven’t met you yet, can you talk a bit about where you were born and what life was like growing up?
I was born in Denver. I was here until I was eight and then we came back when I was 14. We moved around a lot. My dad changed careers, we moved out to Kentucky and spent six years there, and then came back here. We kept moving until I was 16 and then we stayed in one place. So, having to adapt to new classes and new people every few years helped me understand that outsider's perspective because I was an outsider most of the time. That only started bothering me in high school. I didn't adapt so well the last two years of high school. That was not fun.
So, what is your title with the Pikes Peak Library District?
I'm the social worker. It's my profession and my job title.
How long have you been in this position?
Since October 2018.
What were you doing before you found this gig?
Mostly work in mental health. Directly before this job I worked for Cedar Springs and their Admissions Department doing crisis evaluations and admissions and all the insurance and crisis phone calls. Before that I was in Denver working at Jefferson Center for Mental Health. I worked for them as a therapist in a doctor's office for a few years. I had gone to South Africa before that, but I had worked for Jefferson Center also before I went to South Africa and always in mental health, case management, therapy, crisis work.
It might seem odd to some people to learn there is a social worker on staff at the public library. Can you explain your role and what you do on a typical day?
I am here to help connect people with resources and it fits well with the library's mission of having this knowledge of resources, whether it be related to business or law or nonprofits or just general reference questions. So, all the librarians do the academic reference and I do more of the social services reference for resources that people can access in the community.
My role is identifying, along with the people who work in the library, people who might benefit from tapping in to some of the resources in the community, whether that is recovery resources for substance abuse, treatment for mental health, medical, resources for people with disabilities, housing, or legal types of issues that come up in conversations with other librarians or other patrons. A lot of my referrals come through them and in some of my conversations. Also, I do some outreach, but I don't have as much time for that now. Most of my day looks like getting those referrals and responding to requests to meet with me and sit down and talk with people about different things they can do to access benefits, get on housing lists, and then a lot of networking with city agencies. That might look like doing a presentation at somebody's meeting or attending weekly coordinated entry meetings where we're identifying people for housing, or one-on-one meetings with new agencies that maybe I haven't met before or just going back and visiting with people I haven't talked to in a while to keep that connection up so I make good referrals and am able to give that warm handoff or have someone I know that I can ask questions or talk to at these different places where I might be referring patrons.
Do you have to have specialized skills to work with people experiencing homelessness, many of who have some form of mental illness or trauma?
I would say at least having a basic understanding of what mental illnesses can look like and how to talk to people and understand where they're coming from. I think an understanding of trauma is important as well. Even if people aren't presenting with a psychosis or something like that, just having that awareness that a lot of people who are experiencing homelessness have trauma in their background or have experienced trauma since they've become homeless. Also, having a basic understanding of things like motivational interviewing for people who get stuck in this learned helplessness where they don't have hope anymore and don't know how to think that anything can change for them. I think at least having a basis of skills, maybe not necessarily a college degree, but a basis of those skills on how to engage with people professionally as well as carrying awareness of a lot of these different components that you're going to be engaging with when you're working with people who are experiencing homelessness. Really, I mean, they're just people. If we can have conversations, then we can do a lot of the work. It’s just knowing how to do that work.
What is your educational background?
I have both a bachelor's and a master’s in social work. Then I went on to complete all the requirements, the hours, and supervision for my licensure, tested, and got my LCSW.
Do you remember your first experience working with someone who was experiencing homelessness? If so, what was it like for you?
Volunteering at the Denver Rescue Mission - preparing their meals and serving meals and talking to people there. I was young; I think I was still a teenager, so I don't know that I had a very well developed sense of people much less the different types of personalities and all that. I think I still operated from this idea of lumping any group of people into a group of people, stereotypical, but overall, I would say it was a good experience. People were grateful and friendly. I don't know that anything stood out to me like conversations, but it was a good experience. I think doing it more from the idea of helping as opposed to connecting with people has shifted for me over time where it's more about the relationship than “I'm here to help you.”
What do you think is the most challenging aspect of being homeless in Colorado Springs?
It seems like one of the most common things I hear is how difficult it is to get around. Being from Denver, it doesn't seem that hard to catch a bus to almost any part of the city or a train to get where you need to go at any time of the day. So even moving here we had someone living with us who didn't have a car and I was shocked that a bus didn't run. We were at a major intersection and there were no buses that came by our house. So that really struck me about this city. But it's something I hear daily: “How am I going to get there?” Even if we can help with bus passes then do they go there? Do they run at regular intervals? Do they run early or late enough? It's such a challenge. It seems like we are expecting people to access this resource or go work here, or go do this, and they can't get there. I don't know that we need to be paying for people to get somewhere, but even if they have the money to get there, they can't because the bus doesn't go there! It's crazy because this is not a tiny city. It's smaller in population, but it's so spread out. It’s a huge challenge.
Many people in our community are concerned for those experiencing homelessness and want to help. What would you suggest?
I would suggest learning about the organizations who are helping people experiencing homelessness and getting involved with one whose mission you would align with. If you think food is important or if you think shelter is important or housing, find those organizations and participate in some way. I would say treating people like they’re people is important - that dignity piece - and knowing who people are and getting to know their stories. Helping them feel like they're not disenfranchised, non-human entities in our community is an important thing. A willingness to let the solution be in your neighborhood, you know, like YIMBY. [Alicia points to the necklace around her neck that has a round button on it. It reads, YIMBY.]
You're pointing to a button on your necklace.
“Yes, in my backyard.” Because the whole attitude that we should do something for them, but not here, which I still don't really understand. I guess I get a bit of that mentality, but if we want to help, let the help be where we are, whether that's in Briargate, or downtown, or in the Broadmoor. If people can't afford housing let the affordable housing be where it makes sense to build it: on a bus line or where there's land. So yeah, just the willingness to let the solutions be where they need to be.
Can you talk a little about the misconceptions people have about homelessness and what do you want the public to know?
I think there's a big misconception like I carried when I was younger, that homelessness has the same face, you know, that it's people who don't want to work, who are using drugs, and even people experiencing homelessness say this to me: “I just want you to know I'm not one of those drug users.” It's a common misconception that everyone fits this one mold. I think it's important to know that every single person has a story that has led them to where they are today.
Would it surprise people to learn the stories behind the people who are experiencing homelessness? We are often taught not to judge a book by its cover, so who are we judging here?
Right? Yeah, I have met people who made six-figure salaries and were doing well at different points in their life and maybe even recently. Even people staying at the shelters might be working full time. This idea they just need to get a job… There are plenty of people working hard and getting over some of the barriers to get back into housing whether they had an eviction, owed a past landlord money, or have a bad credit score. How easy is it for any of us to have a bad credit score and not be able to rent a place? They don't have the rental history for however long they've been experiencing homelessness. I think we forget that there are all these other hoops that every one of us has to jump through to rent a place and once you're out of a place those hoops get that much higher to jump through. You would be surprised at some of the people you'll talk to and what their stories are. It’s like, “That’s me I'm looking at right there.” You know, college-educated, well-employed, and went through a layoff. You just never know. You never know.
What does feeling a sense of security mean to you? And how would you describe it for yourself?
That's a good question. It's something I don't have to think about that much. I think it's all those things so many of us take for granted. I know how I'm going to eat. I know where I'm going to sleep every night. I know that it's safe. I can lock the door. I can have my own space. I have people around me who are reliable. I have a job that's reliable and dependable as far as I know. [Alicia laughs.] Things like a car that I can depend on for the most part. Some financial cushion, when things don't go so well, creates a sense of security. I think we can also carry this awareness that any of that could be gone, so it's not necessarily a real sense of security but it helps me to feel that way daily.
How would you talk to a child about homelessness?
My daughter is three so that topic comes up a lot. We were putting together some care packages at my church - Ziploc bags with socks and treats and different things in them. We were telling her we were going to give these to people who were homeless, and she didn't understand. We were trying to explain to her they don't have a home that they can live in. And that’s just so foreign to a kid who has a home. She asked me one time: “Are you going to step on them?” (like if they’re sleeping on the sidewalk). She saw people sleeping laying out on the sidewalks when they were out in front of the library. This is a bit young to conceptualize to a three-year-old, but I think you can get on their level and just explain to them that some people don't get to go home at night. She would keep saying, “They'll go home…” and I'm like, well, no, they can't because they don't have somewhere. But then the larger picture I would get more into as she gets older and explain the different factors that go into play, like having an affordable place to stay. I think just making it as age-relevant as you can, but I don't see it as something to hide from children. I know some people take the approach “we don't want them to see that” but I think she needs to know that these things exist in our world. There's lots of reasons for it that children won't fully grasp until they get how money works. But I think just starting with the idea that not everyone has the same advantages and the same opportunities in life is important for kids to see and understand.
If you suddenly found yourself homeless, what is the first thing you would do?
I've thought about that a lot. I'm really grateful that I have people that I could rely on. I have a good family that wouldn't let me be out on the street. I think I would try to get established with them or with some friends and try to build it back up again, but I think I would at least have the stability of a place to stay. I would have to call on people.
When you think about your work with those experiencing homelessness and the agencies and people whose mission it is to help them, are there any lessons you’ve learned that come to mind?
Looking at the different agencies and how they serve different populations, I've seen that some people take that as an indication that “there's no help for me then” or “they help families, so I don't qualify for that kind of help.” But I think it's important that the agencies have their mission and the people they work with. We need specialties for families experiencing homelessness, and women-headed families, and veterans, and single adults, and people experiencing mental health issues and substance abuse problems. There are just so many different avenues you could go to and I think for the agencies that have identified this as “our niche,” that's important. On the flip side, you see that it feels even more disenfranchising for people who are experiencing homelessness who don't fit that category. It's a constant challenge, but those niches are important so you can really do what you do well.
Do you feel like the agency's communicate? If someone walks in and they can't serve them does the agency know where to send them?
I haven't gotten a great sense of that, but I think my position is unique in that I'm trying to talk to all of them separately. If I know you can go there and I've confirmed that, and I’ve made a phone call or something or have sent other people and had good results, then I will send people there. I try to communicate with agencies, but I don't know if they're communicating with each other.
How has your advocacy work with the homeless changed you, if at all?
I think it has made me a lot more compassionate because even though as a compassionate person having the social work training and all of that, I think I still carried (and still do) my own biases. But every day I encounter something that's like, yeah, you can't think it's this or that. Anyone can find themselves there. It's not a condition, it’s a state. We can all find ourselves in poverty or wealth, we can find ourselves married or unmarried. It’s not a condition. I think that's important - not letting it be permanent and not letting it be reflective of some character or anything like that.
If you could ask for something-anything-that would improve the homeless situation in Colorado Springs, what would it be?
Access to affordable housing will always make an impact. There are a number of people that their income is just not going to meet market rates, whether they're disabled or have other kinds of challenges to acquiring employment that's going to pay that market rate. We need the affordable housing for those individuals and there are a significant number of them. Even if it's just to enter the rental market and then they could increase their salary and find something that's not so-called affordable housing or fit into that category. I would see making that more accessible and more abundant as making a dent in the homelessness issue.
What do you like to do in your free time? What are your interests?
Oh gosh, if I had any time in my life, I like to be outside. I like to hike. We live in Calhan, so my days are long. I don't get back towards the mountains often, but I enjoy the mountains a lot - hiking and camping and snowboarding. I like it, but don’t do it. [Laughter.] I like baking, too.
What's your favorite thing to bake?
Um, either sweetbreads or chocolate chip cookies.
Is there anything you would like to talk about and for readers to know about homelessness?
Keep an open mind to other people that aren't like us, don't look like us, talk like us, act like us. There's always more to the story.