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Library social worker helps homeless seeking quiet refuge

January 28, 2015 at 6:20 PM EST
Meet the nation's first full-time library social worker. Instead of trying to keep homeless residents from taking shelter in the urban haven of public libraries, San Francisco has adopted a new approach: employing a trained professional to address the needs of these visitors. The NewsHour’s Cat Wise reports.

JUDY WOODRUFF: About four million people visit their local library every day in the U.S. Some have nowhere else to go. The American Library Association can’t put a number on how many homeless people are using their facilities as shelter, but many cities are struggling to address the problem.

In San Francisco, where more than 7,000 people are homeless, the city decided to take an unusual approach, placing a social worker inside the library.

The NewsHour’s Cat Wise has our report.

CAT WISE: A line of people recently stood outside San Francisco’s main public library waiting for the gates to open. Then the crowds streamed in.

The library draws patrons from all walks of life. But on a typical day, about 15 percent of the 5,000 visitors are homeless. In that regard, San Francisco isn’t unique. Many urban libraries serve as safe havens during the day for the homeless. But here’s what is unique about San Francisco’s library.

Meet Leah Esguerra, the nation’s first full-time library social worker. Esguerra was hired in 2009 to do outreach to patrons in need of social services.

LEAH ESGUERRA, Psychiatrist Social Worker: I think one of the advantages of having been here for six years is that I have become a familiar face at the library, so people know me. And, actually, it’s interesting. Even on the streets, they go, you’re the library lady or you’re the social worker.

CAT WISE: Esguerra is well-acquainted with the city’s large homeless population, many of whom hang out near the library, which is steps from City Hall and the gritty Tenderloin neighborhood.

Before coming to the library, she worked at a nearby community mental health clinic. These days, she seeks out many of the same kinds of people she helped in the past, but in a very different setting, amid books.

LEAH ESGUERRA: I always say that it’s easier to do outreach on the streets because it’s a neutral territory. You can just approach people. But, here, it’s their safe place, it’s their sanctuary. So I try to be very respectful.

My way in is, hi. I don’t know if you know that there’s a social worker at the library. I don’t say that I think they’re homeless, but I just say, you know, we have these services. If you think you might, you know, want to know more about it, I’m available. I’m always here.

CAT WISE: Much of Esguerra’s job entails providing information to people about where they can access services like free meals, temporary shelters, and legal aid.

But when she encounters an individual who meets specific criteria, including being chronically homeless, with a physical or medical condition, Esguerra’s role changes.

LEAH ESGUERRA: I sit down with the person. That’s when being a clinical social worker comes in.

I do the full clinical assessment. And then I make a presentation to my colleagues at the San Francisco homeless outreach team. They provide case management and also housing.

CAT WISE: In fact, since the program began, about 150 formerly homeless library patrons have received permanent housing, and another 800 have benefited from other social services.

But not everyone, even in liberal San Francisco, is supportive of the homeless presence at the library. One particularly irate patron recently wrote a review on the main library’s Yelp page: “Can you please, please, please kick the homeless people out? They are disruptive in the stacks, leave their garbage, stink, body fluids at the desks. They use their bathrooms as their shower facilities.”

Inappropriate use of library facilities by some patrons, including the homeless, has long been an issue in San Francisco.

Last year, after encouragement from the city’s mayor, the library implemented a new code of conduct with tougher penalties. But some advocates feel the code unfairly targets the homeless, such as rules against emitting strong odors and bringing large carts or luggage into the library.

BRIAN ANDREWS: There are times where security, or whatever, the library police, they’re not always that friendly.

CAT WISE: Brian Andrews is one of those upset by the tougher enforcement. He says he’s been homeless for 10 years and often comes to the library to use the restroom because he doesn’t have other options.

BRIAN ANDREWS: I need to go to the restroom, and, granted, the library has signs posted saying that you cannot shower, bathe, whatever. And I understand and appreciate that, but, at the same time, it’s like, I’m on the street, and what can I do?

CAT WISE: Luis Herrera is the chief of San Francisco library system. He says the new rules are not targeted at any one group of patrons, and the library wants to support everyone who walks through the doors.

LUIS HERRERA, City Librarian, San Francisco Public Library: Urban libraries are one of the most democratic intuitions that we can have, and we welcome everybody; 99 percent of the individuals come in here, use the library respectfully, for its intended purpose, but we’re always going to have that small percentage that has some problems or some issues.

CAT WISE: One of the ways the library is trying to make it work better for everyone is by putting more eyes and ears on the floors.

JERRY MUNOZ, Health and Safety Associate: I had an outreach I didn’t tell you about yesterday. He’s 35 years old. He’s homeless. He’s been homeless for two years, but there’s no chronic illness or nothing like that.

CAT WISE: On the day we visited the library, Esguerra was meeting with Jerry Munoz and two other staff she hired known as health and safety associates. All three are formerly homeless library patrons themselves, and now, after turning their lives around, they are trying to help others do the same.

JERRY MUNOZ: This is our basic community here. Right here, we deal with all kinds of people. A lot of retired people come here and stuff.

But like I said, I look for people with a lot of bags, that or people that are asleep.

CAT WISE: Munoz, who is 54, lost his job and home six years ago, when his son passed away unexpectedly, and depression set in, followed by substance abuse and health complications from diabetes.

He spent nine months homeless on the streets of San Francisco, but he now lives in subsidized city housing. And after receiving special training from Esguerra, he patrols the library floors during his three-hour shift, five days a week, looking for anyone he thinks may need help.

JERRY MUNOZ: Excuse me, brother. You’re not allowed to sleep in the library?

MAN: I’m sorry

JERRY MUNOZ: That’s alright. Hey, here’s a — would like a place where you can sleep during the day?

I talk to them, and I go, oh, I slept under the bridge, I did everything, you know what I mean? And I let them know I know where they’re coming from. It makes them feel comfortable. Then they know that they have one person they can connect with.

CAT WISE: For her part, Esguerra is soon planning to hire two new formerly homeless outreach workers. And the program will be expanded into San Francisco’s neighborhood libraries in the coming year.

I’m Cat Wise for the PBS NewsHour in San Francisco.

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