The San Francisco Public Library is more than just a book-lover’s sanctuary–it’s a place of refuge and redemption for the city’s homeless community. But the homeless haven’t always been quite so welcome amid the building’s hushed holdings. For many years, these visitors took advantage of the open doors for free internet access and restrooms, causing disruption that grew increasingly destructive–they bathed in the sinks, did drugs in the stalls, and even threatened and cursed at other patrons. So in 2009, the Library partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and hired a full-time psychiatric social worker named Leah Esguerra. Over the past seven years, Esguerra has shepherded around 800 homeless library visitors towards support from social services, and around 150 have even found permanent housing.
Esguerra directly engages with the homeless patrons, tackling complaints about unruly behavior and providing information about where to find meals, shelters, and legal assistance. In more extreme situations, like encounters with those with medical conditions, she conducts full clinical assessments and connects the visitors with San Francisco’s homeless outreach team for further case management. She also trains the library staff to handle any behavioral issues they might witness and supervises her supporting team of “health and safety associates”–formerly homeless people who are employed at the library after completing a 12-week vocational rehabilitation program.
One such associate is 50-year-old Melvin Morris, who slept on park benches around San Francisco for several drug-addicted years, but now has his own room in a residential hotel near the library and works up to 20 hours a week. He monitors the restrooms and hands out flyers about shelters and job training programs, politely encouraging disruptive patrons to depart. In more aggressive scenarios, he summons security, but his empathetic understanding tends to do the trick: “I come from the same place they come from,” he explains. “When I talk to them, they can’t believe I was actually homeless. I tell them they could do it, too.”
This combination of compassion and practical problem-solving has proven to be a powerful approach. In the words of Kathy Lawhun, the Chief of the Main Library, it’s all about “really understanding and empathizing, but also setting limits and guidelines and referring people who need help.” The strategy may not be a complete solution, but it’s certainly a step in the right direction–ongoing surveys reveal fewer complaints of disorderly incidents and decreased severity when issues do occur. San Francisco has inspired change in other cities, too–24 public libraries around the country now provide similar programs to serve otherwise underserved homeless demographics, offering safety and support between the stacks.
About 15% of the San Francisco Public Library’s 5,000 daily visitors are homeless people who seek comfort within the safe, open environment.
Some use the library as a safe and quiet space to sleep.
Others take advantage of the free public bathrooms, using the sinks for bathing and laundry.
In her office, Leah Esguerra makes a call to discuss one of her cases with the city’s homeless outreach team.
Esguerra displays flyers like this one in easy view, providing information about nearby services for housing, jobs, meals, and more.
Here, Esguerra meets with her “health and safety associates,” all of whom were once homeless themselves.
All images via PBS NewsHour.