by Barbara Trainin Blank
Public libraries have always been democratic, serving a cross-section of the population. After all, they are public, often easily accessible, and free.
As these populations have shifted to include more of the disadvantaged population, including people who are homeless, there is a small but growing trend for libraries to include social workers—not as patrons, but as helping professionals on staff.
It’s not surprising that libraries have become hubs for homeless people or even the equivalent of day shelters. In addition to their other assets, libraries have plenty of bathrooms and no security checks.
They are also safe, which is an important consideration. According to the National Coalition for the Homeless, as of July 17, 2014, 337 homeless people have been killed in hate crimes in 15 years.
The trend toward providing social services in libraries began at the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), which hired a licensed marriage and family therapist, not an MSW.
“Many of my clients have told me that they consider the library a sanctuary, and many of them utilize and truly enjoy the library resources,” says Leah Esguerra, LMFT, hired through a partnership between the San Francisco Public Library and the San Francisco Department of Health/San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team.
But in addition, the library’s goal is to connect its homeless and indigent patrons to available community resources, where their basic needs for food, shelter, hygiene, and medical attention can be addressed. Esguerra spends her day roaming the library floors, keeping an eye out for regulars who might need help.
At first, Esguerra’s primary responsibilities were to provide direct services to patrons and training to the library staff on issues of homelessness, mental health, and substance abuse. But because of the interest the program has aroused among libraries and social service agencies, she also communicates with institutions that are considering hiring a social worker.
Esguerra supervises six health and safety associates and two team leaders to do further outreach at the main library and some of the branches. “The associates are formerly homeless people who have first-hand experience with San Francisco social services,” she says.
Elsewhere, the Pima County Library in Arizona became the first in the nation to hire public health nurses in its branches. The San Jose Public Library sent a caseworker to SFPL for training and consultation and now has a case manager on staff in a program entitled “Social Workers in the Library.”
Begun by Deborah Estreicher (a librarian on staff who has worked with outreach programs), Peter Lee, Glenn Thomas, and Cyndy Thomas, the program brings volunteer social workers into the library twice a month for free 20-minute referrals. Members of the National Association of Social Workers, North California Chapter, staff the program.
The social workers can help with such issues as education; emergency services (food, clothing, housing, and crisis support); employment; family matters; health improvement (including health insurance); immigration; and support groups for men, women, and teens.
The Encinitas Library in San Diego may soon have free access to social workers. It has been exploring a partnership with San Diego State University’s School of Social Work.
The Edmonton Public Library in Canada also hired a social worker, modeled after the San Francisco program. David MacMain, BSW, formerly of the Edmonton Library, was the first social worker in the program, which started in August 2011.
He called it the “brainchild” of Virginia Clavette, manager of programming at the main downtown branch, which has become “very much a hub of activity and community center, in the proximity of homeless shelters and frontline agencies.”
The Edmonton Library applied to the provisional government and won a Safer Community Initiative grant. Part of the grant was to pay for three social workers and to provide IDs for patrons. “It’s a huge barrier when they cannot pay for their own,” MacMain notes.
Edmonton aimed to serve both diagnosed and undiagnosed individuals with mental health issues who have fallen between the cracks. “Many libraries serve the middle class, but this one has a different demographic, and we decided to embrace it and make a difference in the community,” he adds. “A big part of the outreach worker’s job is to connect people with resources and do community building.”
The library social worker trend is too uncommon for the National Association of Social Workers to track—yet. Neither does the American Library Association, although the ALA provided examples of its member branches with these or similar programs.
The Denver Public Library’s Community Technology Center team pays regular visits to the area day shelter for homeless and low-income women. The women receive instruction in job interviewing techniques and technology skills, and once class is over, receive bus tokens to tour the main library and get library cards.
Even in the absence of such formal programs, librarians often feel they must help users find shelter, food, and other public services, as more and more people seem to fall between the cracks. Partly, this is because they get to know patrons, especially those who come in on a regular basis.
Sari Feldman, director of the Cuyahoga Community Public Library (Ohio) and incoming president of the ALA (as of 2015-2016), noted that today’s libraries “play a huge role in serving all people, in particular, the neediest. We have a great opportunity to create equity and to change lives.”
Some libraries work one-on-one, or help people who want to go back to school or work, through adult basic education, GED classes, and career counseling workshops. “Computers in a library make a big difference, as a lifeline to dislocated persons,” Feldman says.
Although the rate of homelessness has been growing for decades, today’s society is witnessing more homeless youth and more homeless people with mental illnesses in the community after deinstitutionalization.
“During the day, the homeless are looking for free, safe places without recrimination or discrimination. The library has always been that place, but now it embraces the role,” Feldman adds.
There would probably be more social workers in libraries, she says, except libraries have faced extreme budget cuts in recent years, and adding positions is a challenge. Staff training in dealing with homeless or mentally ill patrons is also needed.
Mary Olive Thompson, MSW, MLS, has been hired by the Kansas City Library as Director of Library Outreach and Community Engagement. She works out of the Bluford Branch, which she calls an “epicenter” for a library health and wellness initiative.
Thompson, who has master’s degrees in social work and library science, says, “Increasingly, the public library is a community site, not just a repository of books and tapes. We can make referrals for needed services.”
Thompson stays informed about services in the community, information she shares with branch staff. She gets calls from them periodically about how to help patrons, like the ex-offender who had trouble finding housing. “There are resources out there,” she says.
In addition, staff go out to transitional housing sites and day care centers and help individuals meet with social service agencies.
Public libraries can also help patrons with applications for public assistance—as this often has to be done online, and many people either don’t have computers or don’t know how to use them.
The nation’s capital has been no exception to the trend. The Martin Luther King branch of the DC Library hired Jean Badalamenti, an MSW, who is the health and human services coordinator of the office of programs and partnerships of the DC Library.
Badalamenti, on the job only since May, said the hiring of a social worker at the library is part of an “intentional focusing” on the homeless population of the area, in partnership with government and non-government agencies. In addition, the DC Library is in the process of obtaining funding to provide library services as of 2015 for the DC jail. “Hospice also wants to do a program with us,” she says.
Although the staff at the library don’t ask questions or assume anything about who is coming in, they are aware that at MLK, the homeless population makes up a large percentage of the patrons. Most of the homeless patrons are male and single, although there are also some women and families.
Badalamenti doesn’t do case management. Her goals for the library are to create partnerships with service providers, connect people and services, and maybe provide some of these services in the library. Another aim is to find places for people to rest or have meal services—sleeping in the library is a “no-no” at most (but not all) libraries.
Badalamenti would like to develop a comprehensive list of community resources for homeless patrons, and provide more staff training about this population and how to deescalate the situation if someone is in crisis.
The DC library allows anyone to come in and check e-mail, look for a job, or go on Facebook. Badalamenti is also looking to create daytime programming for people experiencing homelessness. One such program already in place off site is Story Time at the DC Homeless Family Shelter, the only such facility in the capital.
“My long-range plan is to bring providers into the library and maybe do a coordinated assessment of individuals to get them to the right services,” she says. “Some need a lot of help or a little, or they might need permanent supportive housing. No coordinated assessment [of these needs] has been done in DC.”
There is evidence that the shift in populations served by libraries isn’t really new—only the awareness of it is. The media aren’t full of coverage of library social work, but some, including National Public Radio, governing.com, and Reuters, among others, have written about it. The Washington Post ran an article about Badalamenti’s work at the DC Library in August of this year. Health Day, an online publication, questioned how librarians can protect themselves from troubled or violent patrons—a darker side of the democratization of libraries to include those who fall through the cracks.
Libraries, says DC’s Badalamenti, are becoming “real places of the community, and embracing diversity.” Her MLK library, for example, partners with the DC Fringe Festival and welcomes musicians and entertainers in the great hall. Undergoing renovation now, it will include a café within a few years.
The HOME Page Café, opened in 2008, is a coffee bar owned and operated by Project HOME in the Parkway Central Branch of the Free Library of Philadelphia. At the café, four formerly homeless individuals serve more than 150 customers daily. A total of 17 formerly homeless people have been trained and gone on to other employment—often going back to school and reuniting with family.
The café offers extensive training in customer service, coffee preparation, and workplace skills to staff, who also pass the Serve Safe Food safety exam.
The ALA notes other examples of social service type programs. The New York Public Library is reaching out to at-risk youth. BridgeUp, an educational and antipoverty program, provides academic and social support to at-risk New York City youth in an effort to prepare them for success. Supported by a $15 million grant from the Helen Gurley Brown Trust, the five-year program offers services to more than 250 New York City eighth to 12th graders each year at NYPL branches in underserved neighborhoods.
“Libraries are on the front line, whether they want to or not,” says Jeremy Rosen, director of advocacy at the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty.
In cooperation with the Baltimore County Communities for the Homeless—a network of volunteers formed to eliminate homelessness through education, government relations, advocacy, and community development—the Baltimore County Public Library created the Street Card program. Services include employment, food and other emergency assistance, health, financial support, legal help, shelters, and others.
The Sacramento Public Library’s Central Library has partnered with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership, dedicated to the improvement of the city’s central business district, and beginning in 2011, contracted for the services of one of its Homeless Outreach Workers (Navigator). The Navigator works in the library Tuesday through Friday, interacting with patrons she believes may have homelessness or mental illness issues. As she gains their trust, she helps them “navigate” through social service programs to find the help they need with housing, substance abuse, income assistance, and more. She also provides staff with in-house expertise in reference, information, and referral for vulnerable populations.
For sure, the quiet library of the past is not the library of today. Initiatives such as hiring library social workers live up to the public library’s tradition as the “first social justice initiative of Western society,” adds MacMain, formerly of Edmonton. “Access to information is power, and the library gave people that access.”
The ways that access is being given may change, but it’s all part of an honored tradition.
Barbara Trainin Blank is a freelance writer based in the Washington, DC, area.