By Leah Esguerra, LMFT, San Francisco Public Library Social Service Team Supervisor
When people discover I am a social worker at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) Main Library, the first question I often hear is, “Really? Why provide social services at the library?!” I understand this response, but in truth, many patrons experiencing homelessness access the library for refuge and assistance for basic needs. And that is where I enter the picture.
As a library social worker, I practice outreach to library patrons who often need social service resources. In addition, library and security staff refer patrons to me and my team of Health and Safety Associates (HASAs) whenever they recognize that patrons might benefit from meeting with the social worker or the HASAs. Often, patrons present with a need for just one or two particular resources. In the same conversation, I try to conduct a more comprehensive assessment to determine if the patron needs anything further than what was initially presented, and help them access those community resources.
At SFPL, a majority of the information requested is related to being unhoused or unsheltered. The team tries to see if the patrons also need a free place to eat, shower, store their belongings, apply for public benefits etc. If the patron is willing to engage further, we try to encourage them to connect with a primary care provider as many of them have not seen a doctor in years.
In providing social services in a library setting, having a “collection” of resources that are most needed by our patrons is necessary. HASAs walk around with a thick binder of free resources that they hand to patrons as needed, with an invitation to come back to “check in.” Having a compilation of free resources on hand will spare patrons the time to go from one agency to another to find the information that can readily be provided to them during their visit at the library. Resources not only help us link our patrons with the right services but are also great tools to “break the ice,” help people feel welcome and express our concerns regarding their well-being. Patrons are also assured that they can keep on coming back for further assistance.
I put together a basic packet that is provided based on the patrons’ needs. The packet includes information on free shelters, free eats, free shower, free clothing, low-cost laundry, and free storage. Included in the packet is information on how to apply for public benefits such as General Assistance and Food Stamps as well as free vouchers for state ID.
Our commitment is to serve everyone at SFPL. We often talk about homelessness because we want to ensure that people experiencing homelessness feel welcome, and find help and solace at the library just like everyone else. Everyone is served (housed or unhoused, individual, family, youth, LGBT, seniors, etc.). Because of this we have information on eviction prevention, low-income housing, free legal assistance, free bus tickets home for family reunification, primary care clinics, support groups as well as substance abuse treatment programs. We partnered up with vocational agencies and our Jobs and Careers Librarian who sends us timely job-related announcements and assists with job searching.
During our conversations, the team also encourages patrons to practice mental and spiritual wellness and links them with support or advocacy groups. We encourage them to take advantage of the free fun activities that the city offers such as art events, holiday-related celebrations, etc. For example, we have the most current Healing Well calendar where free yoga and meditation are offered.
Although these resources are specific to San Francisco, similar partnerships can be formed in any city. Having information about just a couple of resources in each category can be sufficient. A compassionate, welcoming and patient approach in explaining to patrons how to access resources can make the outreach more successful.
We learned from our patrons that resources on paper are best because at times patrons might not have access to a cellphone or computer outside the library. The patrons are encouraged to come back to ask for more copies if they lose the information.
SFPL’s services are augmented by partnerships we have made with community organizations. Even with locations where resources might seem limited, at our smaller branch libraries, for example, we are amazed at how many nonprofit agencies, neighborhood groups, and faith-based organizations are providing services “under the radar.” These partners are great allies in serving patrons experiencing homelessness. Specifically, Lava Mae free mobile showers, Pop Up Care Village, and Project Homeless Connect resource events that we regularly hold at SFPL give the library and organizations a one stop shop opportunity to serve and celebrate together as a community in an atmosphere that is welcoming and festive. These partnerships show that we do not and cannot do it alone. By forging our services and resources together we are stronger together, and more people experiencing homelessness will receive that help that they need within the safety of the library.