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Services for the Homeless at Libraries

Atrium, San Francisco Public Library

Atrium in the San Francisco Public Library [Photo courtesy of Katherine Jardine, Public Relations Officer, San Francisco Public Library]

One of the SIRS Issues Researcher Leading Issues my colleague Amy and I work on at ProQuest is Homelessness. Learning about the different challenges the homeless face on a daily basis, we wanted to know more about what is being done to help them. After some initial research, we came across the San Francisco Public Library and Leah Esguerra who was hired there as the nation’s first library social worker helping homeless patrons. Here’s what we learned from our conversation with Leah Esguerra and an infographic highlighting the different services offered for homeless patrons at some libraries.

Typical Work Day

Leah Esguerra has been a social worker at San Francisco Public Library for almost eight years (she contracts out from the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team) and described to us how her work has evolved and changed over time. Today, she has a team of eight people, 7 are outreach workers known as Health and Safety Associates (HASAs). The HASAs are employees who have dealt with homelessness at some point in their lives. The goal is for the HASAs to link homeless patrons with outreach and resources they can use on their own. She supervises the outreach workers, who work in four shifts.

They have a visible place in the library, known as The Spot where patrons can check in and up with the HASAs. In addition to working with the outreach workers, Esguerra does walkthroughs and acts as a consultant for staff in dealing with situations that arise with patrons. She answers questions about social services, behavioral issues, and mental health. Some days, she sees as many as 15-30 people.

The library also works to establish community partnerships with Veteran’s Affairs, Lava Mae  (a service providing mobile showers for the homeless) and others.

The Role of Health and Safety Associates (HASAs)

The HASAs do outreach in the bathrooms to find people who are inappropriately using the bathrooms (for example, sleeping in the stalls or bathing) and use their own experience as formerly homeless to help and to tell them about places they can go to for help. The HASAs provide inspiration and patrons are drawn to them because of relatable experiences.

Some of the original HASAs have moved on, continuing to grow in their line of work. One is in civil service and another is now a senior case manager.

Biggest Challenges

Challenges include the housing crisis in the Bay area. Esguerra’s original position 8 years ago was tied to finding housing. She would link homeless patrons with single room occupancies. Now, finding housing is a tougher issue. Finding housing is possible, but it often takes more than a year. They went from 400 to 30+ available rooms. She also said she has little access to these rooms and the rooms are not solely for library use. Another challenge presented itself with displacement among the elderly.

Rewards of the Job

People will come back to Esguerra after many years and thank her for her help. They tell her they are working and still have a house or that she’s helped them deal with mental health issues. She gets calls during the holidays from people she’s helped as well.

Esguerra said the HASAs are seen a safety net too. Staff will first call the HASAs if homeless patrons are causing a disturbance instead of calling security.

Best Practices for Homeless Outreach Programs

It is essential for libraries to have social services and/or social workers. Libraries without the means available to hire a social worker can partner with universities or create other partnerships with community organizations. Social service programs in libraries are great for both staff and patrons. Esguerra told us how the homeless have said the library is their sanctuary. She and her team at the library consider themselves ambassadors. They make the homeless feel included in the community. Having HASAs work at the library brings a different face of homelessness to the staff. The HASAs work very hard and are really good at what they do. They humanize the homeless and raise the level of compassion and understanding.

“Libraries are the community living room.” — Leah Esguerra

Esguerra says other libraries who are interested in starting a social services program should definitely give it a try. She said there are many ways to accomplish it.

Today, the movement is international. The San Francisco Public Library has inspired libraries and institutions elsewhere around the world – including Korea, Japan, and Australia – to implement their own social service programs.

Libraries and Homelessness [Infographic]

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