In 2009, the San Francisco Public Library decided to do something bold to address the overwhelming number of homeless patrons who utilize their facility: They hired a social worker.
Meet Leah Esguerra, who joined the SFPL staff as the nation’s first psychiatric social worker at a library. Every day, Esguerra walks around the library and gets to know homeless patrons. She then performs a full clinical assessment and reports her finding back to her colleagues at the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team, who works to provide the homeless with case management and housing.
Seven years since her program began, Esguerra sees clear results. Esguerra and her team have helped hundreds of patrons find jobs, housing, and healthier lives, and have inspired libraries across the country to follow suit.
“The library becomes a sanctuary for many of the patrons and our program helps them to feel safe again,” Esguerra told City Lab. “These programs are humanizing homelessness throughout the library.”
It started with a distressing statistic. Of the 5,000 people that visit the San Francisco Public Library every day, about 15 percent (that’s 750 patrons) are homeless, according to PBS. Patrons utilize the library for internet access, to use the bathroom, and to escape the bad weather. While libraries nationwide provide a safe place for the homeless, many like SFPL meet with pushback from the community after witnessing some patrons doing drugs and misusing the bathrooms.
To solve this problem SFPL made a decision to hire some of the homeless, under Esguerra’s supervision, to keep their facility up to par. Melvin Morris was the first person to receive this job. He works around 20 hours a week for $12 an hour. Esguerra guided him through a 12-week vocational rehabilitation program before hiring him. Now, Morris works to monitor the bathrooms, making sure that they are clean and safe.
“I come from the same place [our homeless patrons] come from,” Morris told huffingtonpost.com. “When I talk to them, they can’t believe I was actually homeless. I tell them they could do it, too.”
Jerry Munoz, 54, was hired through the same program as Morris. Munoz lost his job and his son six years ago and fell into a state of depression and substance abuse. He lived on the streets of San Francisco for nine months. He now works at the library five days a week, patrolling different floors looking for anyone who may need help.
“I talk to [the homeless patrons], and I go, oh, I slept under the bridge, I did everything, you know what I mean?” Munoz told PBS. “I let them know I know where they’re coming from. Then they know that they have one person they can connect with.”
The San Francisco Public Library has started a trend. Today, more than 24 public libraries provide support for the homeless. All of the public libraries in Pima County, Arizona have nurses walk around providing blood pressure checks and immediate care to anyone who looks as though they need it. The Queens Library in New York provides a connections to emergency food, shelter, and legal services through a mobile app.
“The role is not to ‘end homelessness,’ but the role is to connect people to resources, to homeless services,” Esguerra told techinsider.com. “… because of homelessness, there’s a lot of exclusion, but here in the library it’s including them, helping them.”
Since the start of the program, 150 homeless patrons have received permanent housing and an additional 800 have enrolled in social and mental health services.