First published in the April 2 print issue of the Burbank Leader.
When community members receive a call back from Sona Ter-Yegishyan, she said, they’re often surprised.
That surprise comes from experience, she believes. The systems available to people seeking aid — whether mental health care, housing or something else — can sometimes make people feel forgotten or passed by when they don’t hear back from anyone. As the city’s new social worker, she’s trying to give them a different experience.
Since starting her role in July 2021, Ter-Yegishyan said in a recent interview, the Burbank High School alumna has split her time between the Burbank library branches and the Jocelyn Adult Center. She meets frequently with nonprofit organizations and government agencies, building connections she later leverages to help community members who come to her, looking for information or aid.
“I think a big problem with folks applying or getting connected to these resources is even understanding what exists out there,” Ter-Yegishyan said.
Those relationships allow Ter-Yegishyan to refer people to other services offered by nonprofits in Burbank, Los Angeles County and elsewhere. Housing is one of the foremost concerns of her clients, but some are looking for food pantries, showers, job search assistance, healthcare and other resources. She estimates that she talks with about two dozen individuals a day, and issues referrals about 10 times a week.
Sometimes, Ter-Yegishyan personally introduces people experiencing homelessness to workers from Streetplus, a company the city works with to address homelessness. Other times, it’s simply a matter of making sure a patron has a phone number that’s going to connect them with the correct resource.
“It does make sense if you think about it, because people do come to the library when they are looking for information or looking to figure something out,” she explained. “So, I’m just kind of like another resource in a building full of resources.”
Library services director Elizabeth Goldman explained that some libraries have had social workers for about 15 years, though the practice remains uncommon. The idea arose locally some years ago when Burbank’s then-new library monitors, who enforce the branches’ rules of conduct, began asking more questions about providing social services to patrons.
After some discussion, the Burbank Public Library reallocated some of its funding for library monitors and worked with the Parks and Recreation Department to create the social worker position. The city got lucky with Ter-Yegishyan, Goldman said, who brings an expertise in mental health. She added that Ter-Yegishyan has shaped the position, sometimes calling agencies alongside community members rather than simply providing them a phone number.
“I think the real value is the personal approach,” Goldman said. “A lot of people [who] might need social services might be a little embarrassed or ashamed.”
Previously, workers in both departments would try their best to direct members of the public to the resources they were seeking. But with other duties demanding their attention, officials explained, it was often difficult to spend the time necessary to conduct research on organizations and connect patrons to them.
“We’ve done our best to connect them to resources … but there are some things that we’re just limited in because that’s not necessarily where our education and work experience come from,” said Erin Barrows, recreation services manager.
The position is still relatively new, but both Goldman and Barrows said they’ve already seen it benefit the public. Twice, Ter-Yegishyan noted, she’s helped someone find housing. But it doesn’t happen as often as she would like; the process isn’t a quick one for those who can’t easily afford Los Angeles’ high housing costs. And it’s not just people experiencing homelessness coming to her for help — she’s spoken with longtime Burbank residents on fixed incomes who are facing eviction.
Ter-Yegishyan sometimes has to be the messenger of bad news. She said she does everything she can to help her clients — whether they’re referred to her by another city worker or they approach her directly — but systemic issues can limit the aid available and how quickly it arrives.
In those cases, she added, she has to remind herself that she’s doing her best. She also makes sure to avoid making the person she’s working with feel they’ll be judged or be labeled as “service resistant” if they decline to take the resources she’s offering.
“I really do think it comes down to just being genuine and authentic,” Ter-Yegishyan said. “I think people can tell when you’re sitting in front of someone that genuinely cares about them as a fellow human being, that’s going to do their best to work with them.”