“Nothing is so painful to the human mind as a great and sudden change.”
― Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.
It is sobering to consider everything currently going on in the world. What we previously considered to be “normal life” has changed overnight as COVID-19 threatens our safety and existence. The violent murder of George Floyd has also shaken the entire world, beyond the United States where it tragically took place. Racial injustice has become very real and visible for those previously privileged enough to be shielded from it. Some people have experienced losses without being able to grieve in the company of loved ones. Celebrations have been canceled, postponed or muted. Isolation, despondency and hopelessness have put our mental health at risk. These are indeed difficult times.
When public libraries closed due to shelter in place policies, it was a great loss for those who love this safe space that is also the community’s living room. For many, the library serves as a sanctuary from the elements. Many people find solace in books as they take respite from the harsh realities of everyday life. As I continue to report to work during shelter in place, I have witnessed people linger at the front gates of the San Francisco Public Library anxiously asking when the library will open again. The sadness often registers on their faces when told there is no definite re-opening date. These individuals are from all walks of life, young, old, people experiencing homelessness, and people furloughed from their jobs walking by, hoping to run into a friend or work friend to find a familiar face.
As for me, it is the uncertainties that are the most difficult to manage. Things continue to change every day. Many SFPL staff, who are civil service workers, have been deployed to work at “isolation and quarantine” hotels designed for people experiencing homelessness to safely quarantine from the virus. Some of the library staff have been deployed as contact tracers or to work at food banks. Even Michael Lambert, SFPL’s City Librarian, has volunteered to be deployed as a monitor at one of the Shelter in Place hotels.
The roles of the San Francisco Public Library Social Service Team, which consist of myself as the social work supervisor and four Health and Safety Associates (HASAs), have also dramatically changed. Since March 17, the HASAs have been deployed to do street outreach. Since the very beginning of the outbreak, they have walked all over San Francisco wearing green outreach jackets to connect with unsheltered people who might be ill or medically high-risk. The HASAs refer and re–direct these individuals to public health clinics. The goal is prevent the emergency rooms from becoming overwhelmed. The HASAs also provide ducation about Coronavirus, along with a squirt of hand sanitizer, which they carry with them. Even when the State of California was well into its shut down, two weeks into shelter in place, HASAs still found unsheltered people unaware of the pandemic. One of the HASAs reflected on this experience by saying he remembered that when he himself was experiencing homelessness, his focus was on day to day survival. His lack of access to the news or media left him unaware of the what was going on in the world.
Since the closure of the library, my role as a social worker has changed to meet the needs of not just the library but also the larger community. I have been asked to provide clinical supervision for 16 case managers of San Francisco’s Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) who continue to serve people experiencing homelessness. Witnessing their dedication and sacrifice has truly been inspiring. In the midst of the pandemic, the outreach workers and case managers never hesitated to move people into shelter in place sites and stable housing. During weekly clinical supervisions, I provide them a space to discuss the issues of trauma, resiliency, healing and self-care that tend to arise while doing this kind of crisis work.
I also continue to connect with community organizations even while the library is closed. We exchange information about resources such as organizations that are still open for unsheltered people to rest, charge phones and make calls, do laundry, etc. I also attend the bi–weekly Covid-19 Providers meeting held by the Director of the Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing. These meetings really help to stay up to date with the City and County of San Francisco’s efforts to address the pandemic and to be familiar with available resources for unsheltered individuals. I pass this knowledge onto the HASAs for their daily street outreach.
Many library staff continue to serve the community in their own way while being deployed or furloughed. Some of them, for example, have reached out to me for resources for places where unsheltered Transitional Aged Youth can stay for the day for rest and food. As people stay home and take care of older family members, there have been requests for resources for seniors. I also continue to provide technical support for Peer Connect, which is a weekly virtual meeting of library peer outreach workers including, of course, our very own HASAs. Peer Connect allows for its participants to exchange information and find support.
Despite the difficulties we are all experiencing right now, it is heartening to see the resilience of our libraries and communities. Let us continue to maintain the community spirit that public libraries have always represented.
Let me close by showcasing some of the outstanding work that SFPL staff are doing: