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Helping the homeless at the S.F. Public Library

A medley of people wait for the San Francisco Public Library to open in the morning. Students on a deadline. People who really need a library book. Retired folks. And people checking email.

As the doors open, patrons stream into the atrium at the main branch near the Civic Center in downtown San Francisco. Some head to their favorite reading nook; others to computers to start surfing the Web.

The library is by nature a transitory place. Most people come and go. But Craig, who didn’t want his last name used, is usually here all day. Craig is homeless. Like thousands of other homeless people, he comes to the library when he has nowhere else to go.

"It’s one of the few buildings that’s open 7 days a week, – and thank God for Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, when it’s open until 8," he says.

Craig sits in a sunny room and reads the newspaper. He eats some bread and bananas. If he’s bored, he dozes off.

"I come to the library basically because it’s quiet and it’s clean. It also doesn’t have the atmosphere that a lot of the drop-in centers have. A lot of the drop-in centers, you just feel like you’re homeless," says Craig. "I’d never been homeless up until 3 months ago, so this is a new experience for me."

San Francisco’s public library system has become known for its digital innovations, special collections, and reading events. The Civic Center branch has also become known, for better or worse, as a homeless hangout. That has prompted a new kind of innovation.

What started as a tough situation – staff members worried about people washing up in the bathrooms, or acting badly – turned into an opportunity. The library, which has always thought of itself as a resource, found it had nothing to offer people who came in asking for help finding housing or places to sleep. The city’s solution? Bring in a social worker assigned to deal with the needs of homeless people.

That’s how, in 2009, Leah Esguerra became the first homelessness social worker in the country to be based out of a library.

"What I’ve learned from being here is that the library’s goal is to include everybody, to make the library accessible for everybody, and not to screen anybody out," she says, adding that the goal has been to help its homeless patrons and to make the library safer.

"Having a library is a true part of democracy in our country, and democracy meaning you include everybody," adds Esguerra.

Since the program’s inception three years ago, Esguerra has reached out to nearly 1,200 homeless people at the library and referred them to city services. So far, 74 of them have also found housing.

Esguerra doesn’t advertise her services. Instead, she relies on her outreach workers, also known as Health and Safety Associates. Kathleen, who didn’t want her last name used, is one of them.

"I hang out in the library," says Kathleen. "I check the bathrooms out, trying to get people to comply with library rules, like, don’t wash your hair in the bathroom sink and that kind of stuff. But the bigger picture is to give them options."

Just a few years ago, Kathleen was also homeless at the library. She used to be a house painter in Sacramento. Then the recession hit.

"October 31, 2008 was the last day I worked and Lehman Brothers had just crashed and it was just like, the light switch… Someone flipped it off and there was no more work. It just stopped," she recounts.

Kathleen and her partner lost their house and started living in their car in San Francisco. When the car broke down, they spent rainy days drying off at the Mission Branch Library. Eventually some homeless outreach workers found them and helped them get back on their feet.

"It was my time to accept help. So everybody in their lives will have that time, they will hold out their hand, and if we can just be there, that’s a hand up," she says.

According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, more than 3.5 million Americans may be homeless on a given night. Libraries across the country have become a destination for the poor and homeless to seek help with everything from finding a job to finding a place to sleep.

"This question is always huge in urban libraries, around how much should a library take on of the homeless problem," says Jill Bourne, San Francisco’s Deputy City Librarian. "Having the program is helping, but the bigger social issue is still looming and that’s kind of the bigger challenge."

Hundreds of city libraries across the country, including San Francisco, have tried to address that “bigger challenge” by opening job centers and adding resume workshops. The city’s social worker program has become a national model. Sacramento now has a homeless outreach worker on call at the Central Library. San Jose’s Martin Luther King Jr. Library brings social workers and lawyers in for free.

But just as the role of the library has evolved to meet the needs of a population in peril, the group of people who need help has widened, too. Social worker Leah Esguerra says she sees students who have defaulted on their school loans and are living in their cars.

"I’ve seen families displaced as well, the same situation. They lost their jobs, they lost their homes, they went through their savings and now, where do we go?" she says.

This story originally aired in 2012. Since then, Jill Bourne has become the San Jose library director. Leah Esguerra is still in her same role in San Francisco.

Crosscurrents San Francisco