Leah Esguerra is a licensed family and marriage therapist, but instead of heading to an office every day to soothe couples’ marital tensions, she reports to the San Francisco Public Library. There she roams the stacks, looking for patrons who might need her help. Some of these patrons are homeless and are looking for a safe place to stay for the day. Others are actively looking for resources, such as showers and food, or just a place to warm up for a while.
No matter their need, Esguerra embraces them all. “Public libraries are sometimes called the last bastion of democracy,” she says. “It’s a community living room where everyone is welcome.”
Esguerra is the nation’s first official library social worker. She was hired by the San Francisco Public Library in 2009, after the collapse of the nation’s economy wiped out jobs and made housing unaffordable for many people. “The housing crisis will always [be a problem here], because there’s not enough houses for people who are on a limited income, are marginalized or are a challenge to house because of mental health and substance abuse issues,” she says.
Esguerra had been working for San Francisco’s Department of Public Health in a community mental health clinic when the city’s public library system reached out to the agency, looking for ways to address the issue of patrons who appeared to be homeless. Some of these library goers had obvious substance abuse or mental health problems, and some were using the library’s bathrooms to wash up or take a nap. Other patrons were aggravated by their presence, and the library staff didn’t feel equipped to handle the situation. The Department of Public Health asked Esguerra if she wanted to try working at the library with people who might need social-service support there, and she agreed to give it a go.
Almost a decade later, Esguerra is still at the main branch of the San Francisco library. And as the number of homeless patrons has ticked up, so has her staff — Esguerra currently oversees a team of seven people who are employed as part-time health-and-safety associates, all of whom have some experience with homelessness themselves.
Jennifer Keys is one such associate, having struggled with mental health issues in the past. Now she works for Esguerra and recently got certified as a peer specialist in mental health. “To be homeless is a full-time job,” says Keys. “The housing crisis here is awful, and the prerequisite for [subsidized] housing is very high.” Nevertheless, her team has helped 116 people find permanent housing since the social-work program began.
Similar library-outreach programs have sprung up in other big cities over the past few years, among them Denver, New York, Philadelphia and San Diego, as well as in smaller communities like Pima County, Arizona, and Georgetown, Texas. “We take pride in being the first in the country, and we’re even considered a national model and blueprint for many other libraries,” Esguerra says. “A lot of times when other libraries start their programs, they call San Francisco.”
Monique le Conge Ziesenhenne, director of library and community services in Palo Alto, California, and current president of the Public Library Association, agrees that the number of libraries that offer outreach programs is on the rise, though she says that the Public Library Association doesn’t track that data. (CityLab reported in 2016 that 24 public libraries across the country offer outreach services.)
“I think what’s really interesting is, in the face of shrinking budgets from every sector of local government, libraries have had to look for creative ways to solve whatever issues are facing them,” Ziesenhenne says. “And as libraries have become more responsive to community needs, it’s interesting how libraries have become community connectors too.”
Maurice Freedman, a former president of the American Library Association, echoes that sentiment. “Libraries are the great democratic equalizer, as anyone can just walk in and sit down,” he says. “It’s the only public service agency that’s not interested in your name and address.”
Not all libraries that employ social workers cater solely to homeless patrons. The Richland Public Library in Columbia, South Carolina, hired a part-time social worker when the Affordable Care Act was introduced in 2013, and people started coming in with questions about different healthcare plans. That part-time employee was soon overwhelmed, and Sharita Moultrie was hired when the branch decided they needed a full-time social worker who specialized in healthcare issues.
“Libraries are the great democratic equalizer. It’s the only public service agency that’s not interested in your name and address.”
— Maurice Freedman, former president of the American Library Association
“There was a great need in the community to be able to sit down one-on-one and talk [to an expert on healthcare], to find options tailored to them,” Moultrie says. “We found that in addition to people needing info about the market, some people also needed help with signing up for food stamps, housing or getting bus tickets so they could look for jobs. If they come through our doors, we do our best to help them.”
Patrick Lloyd is the community resources coordinator at the public library in Georgetown, Texas, a small city about 30 miles north of Austin. He was hired in 2015 when his boss noticed an increase in homeless patrons and people coming in “seeking answers to questions about things that lie outside the library.” In the case of Georgetown, its population essentially doubled over the past decade, Lloyd says, pushing it from “rural” to “urban” on the 2010 census, and so with that came “big city issues” for a place that doesn’t have its own shelter system or reliable public transportation. So the library stepped into the gap, providing patrons with information on everything from hiring a lawyer to earning a GED. The library also loans out bicycles, hosts live music events and has a “mobile library” for patrons who have mobility issues.
“People come in and have questions about books or computers, they ask a librarian,” says Lloyd. “But if they have questions about ESL classes or a low-cost attorney, I help them.”
In Pima County, Arizona, the local library faced a different issue: People who needed medical attention. So instead of a social worker, they hired registered nurses. “Pima is in a rural part of Arizona where it’s difficult to get access to health care,” Esguerra says. That’s not an issue in San Francisco, she adds, as there is a free medical clinic right across the street from the library.
The San Francisco library has partnered with organizations like Lava Mae, which brings buses outfitted with free showers to the library every week, and they also organize a “pop-up village” every two months where people can get access to resources like free dental care, glasses and the like.
“It’s all about our community, and right now our community is in need,” Keys says. “So we let people know that they have some place to go.”