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How Public Libraries Have Become Spare Homeless Shelters (Hard Times USA)

As social safety nets shrink, libraries are more vital than ever as safe spaces for people with nowhere else to go.

Photo Credit: Shutterstock.com/connel


SAN FRANCISCO—Not everyone who spends all day, every day in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is down and out. Only mostly everyone.

Kathleen Lee knows this because she spends hours a day walking the six floors of the vast, sky-lit building, looking for patrons who might need real help. They are everywhere: in the carrels, amid the stacks, on the computers. Some wear all they own on their backs and all they’ve lived through on their faces. Others hide in plain sight. Lee knows this, too, since she was homeless a few years ago. So she tries to let everyone know who she is and what she does.

 “I strike up a lot of conversations,” she said at the end of a recent three-hour shift.

What Lee does at the San Francisco main library is help homeless and indigent patrons fill fundamental needs--food, shelter, hygiene, medical attention, substance abuse and mental health services. She’s one of five peer counselors, all formerly homeless, who work with a full-time psychiatric social worker stationed at the library to serve its many impoverished patrons. This outreach team, one of the first in the country, is no longer a novelty. In these hard times, as social safety nets shrink, libraries have become more vital than ever as safe spaces for people with nowhere else to go. Since the San Francisco Public Library outreach program began, about four years ago, it has been inundated with requests for guidance from libraries all over the country grappling with their new role as de facto day shelters.

“I think we’ve paved the way,” said Leah Esguerra, the SFPL’s social worker, who is in demand as a speaker at library and social worker conferences. She estimates that the library has helped more than 60 patrons find permanent housing and hundreds of others find social services.

More and more, libraries are hiring social workers, nurses and other outreach workers to serve their neediest visitors, with the Sacramento, Tulsa and Salt Lake City libraries being three of the latest. (The Greensboro, N.C. library has even started serving free meals, along with talks with prominent guests, on Mondays through the winter.) More and more, libraries are also setting rules for behavior. Many are banning sleeping, lying on the floors or bathing in the bathrooms. But striking a balance between making the destitute feel welcome and the general library public feel comfortable is proving tricky.

Beyond common sense rules for behavior, some libraries are going further, banning people with blankets, or with “poor hygiene” or “offensive body odor.” In Newport Beach, Calif., an affluent city in Orange County, the City Council passed a series of regulations last July for its four library branches that include bans on sitting, sleeping or occupying furniture “in a manner that suggests lounging.” It has also banned “a lack of personal hygiene” and sleeping bags and blankets.

The Bethlehem Area Public Library, in Bethlehem, P.A. instituted over two dozen rules for patron behavior in response to an influx of homeless people who were being dropped off every morning by a church-run shelter program. The rules include prohibitions on sleeping bags, bringing in more than two bags and “offensive body odor.”

Two library systems, in Santa Cruz, Calif., and Lombard, Ill., recently debated and decided against sleeping bans, arguing that unless a patron is disturbing others with how or where they sleep, the humane thing to do is to let them be. The Iowa City, IA library debated the sleeping ban and decided it made sense.

Each library system has its own rules. The American Library Association (ALA) doesn’t dictate or keep tabs on local libraries’ policies, including policies for handling its neediest patrons. But the ALA’s core philosophy is as assiduously democratic as the inscription on the Statue of Liberty. In 1990, when national homelessness, spurred by federal budget cuts in the 1980s, was still a young crisis, the ALA created what it called the "Poor People’s Policy.” Similar to a bill of rights, the policy encouraged all libraries to “recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society by utilizing a wide variety of available resources and strategies.”