We have all been at a public library enough to witness the inclination of the homeless to hang out there. It makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s open to the public, offers free shelter from the elements, provides entertainment, and has free facilities. The idea of using this public venue, which is funded by the community and for the community, to reach out to these individuals is relatively new and, to use a library term, overdue. In San Francisco, where more than 7,000 people are homeless, the city decided to place a social worker inside the main public library to do just that.
Enter Leah Esguerra, the nation’s first full-time library Psychiatric Social Worker. Esguerra was hired in 2009 to do outreach to patrons in need of social services. Esquerra thinks that one of the recompenses of her time at the library is that she has become a recognizable face to the patrons and is therefore more approachable. She has noticed that she is even recognized on the streets as “that library lady.” Her job often is comprised of providing information to people about where they can access services like free meals, temporary shelters, and legal aid. She does however sometimes encounter an individual who meets identifiable criteria, including being recurrently homeless, with a physical or medical condition, at which point her roles and services change. “I do the full clinical assessment. And then I make a presentation to my colleagues at the San Francisco homeless outreach team. They provide case management and also housing. In fact, since the program began, about 150 formerly homeless library patrons have received permanent housing and another 800 have benefited from other social services.”
Some are not happy with this service though. Often the San Francisco Public Library will get patrons who complain about these homeless patrons. One patron recently wrote a review on the main library’s Yelp page:”Can you please, please, please kick the homeless people out? They are disruptive in the stacks, leave their garbage, stink, body fluids at the desks. They use their bathrooms as their shower facilities.”. Luis Herrera, San Francisco Public Library’s City Librarian, said that “urban libraries are one of the most democratic intuitions that we can have, and we welcome everybody; 99 percent of the individuals come in here, use the library respectfully, for its intended purpose, but we’re always going to have that small percentage that has some problems or some issues.” It would therefore be safe to say that the San Francisco Public Library is committed to this local revolution of how a library can inspire and help all of its community.
1. Library social worker helps homeless seeking quiet refuge. News Hour, San Francisco: PBS, 2015. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/bb/library-social-worker-helps-homeless-seeking-quiet-refuge/