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Libraries reach out to 'Help in Hard Times'

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By Tim Puko
Saturday, March 7, 2009

Libraries are helping people having difficulties because of job losses and other money woes, according to officials in Allegheny County.

The rising number of people searching for jobs is showing in the number seeking to use public Internet at libraries, often because they cut home service, or checking out free DVDs and CDs for entertainment. It's part of a wider trend sending people who never before sought assistance to county human service agencies, officials said this week.

"We haven't turned the corner. That's what's so scary," county Human Services Director Marc Cherna said in a meeting about the economic downturn.

County officials are training librarians to respond, in sessions that start March 30. They'll be shown how to navigate the county's "Help in Hard Times" Web site, , and how to help people create resumes and use job search Web sites, said Beth Mellor, spokeswoman for the Allegheny County Library Association, which is coordinating the sessions.

"I've seen grown men ready to, like, burst into tears because they're so frustrated," said Jo Ellen Kenney, director of the Carnegie Library of McKeesport. "You see people struggling. They're exasperated at the PC. And you ask, 'Do you need some help?' That's when you really find out this is beyond resumes and applications."

The library association has received calls from libraries since November. Hot spots appear to be McKeesport, Kennedy and Bellevue, Mellor said. Directors at the McKeesport library, which has branches in four Mon Valley towns, were the first to report a spike in people seeking assistance.

At least 10 people each week visit the library to search for jobs online, Kenney said. Yet, despite the increased need, the McKeesport library is losing funding from municipalities and school districts and recently cut two-part time workers from its 20-person staff.

People who were drawing high incomes aren't immune from the hard times, officials said. The East End Cooperative Ministry, for example, counted 24 people from Shadyside, a six-fold increase, coming in for food, said Paul DeWalt, the ministry's director for homeless and hunger services.

"They don't even know what to ask for," he said. "They're sitting, taking up the least possible room, almost looking as if they hope nobody notices they're there. The ones I've talked to all sound shocked."

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