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Urban Libraries Become De Facto Homeless Shelters


Whether they like it or not, libraries in some cities serve as homeless shelters. People come off the streets to find quiet and warmth. If libraries want to do something about this, they have some choices: They can put homeless visitors back out on the street. San Francisco libraries want to get them back on their feet.

Scott Shafer reports from member station KQED.

SCOTT SHAFER, BYLINE: On a recent weekday morning, San Francisco library patron Jacqueline Diehl enters the city's main branch. She's here to use a computer and other resources to look for work. As a regular library visitor, she's seen it all.

JACQUELINE DIEHL: Some months ago, one guy hit another guy with a chair and there was, like, blood all over the floor. It does escalate that bad.

SHAFER: Now, to be sure, incidents like that are an extreme exception. But visit the first floor bathroom, and you're almost sure to find people shaving, brushing their teeth or even bathing.

And does all that ever, you know, make you uncomfortable or worry you about using the library?

DIEHL: For a while I just didn't want to come to the library because it just got so bad.

SHAFER: In fact, a few months ago, one man was caught urinating on book shelves - not once, but twice. It forced the city to toughen library rules and punishment.

On a recent weekday morning, dozens of people are waiting outside for the library to open. Many appear to be homeless, including Clarissa Eat. The 39-year-old San Francisco native is standing on a sidewalk heating grate to stay warm.

CLARISSA EAT: In and out of shelters, unfortunately. I'm trying to get housing right now. I'm just drifting.

SHAFER: You're standing here, you've got a red suit case and a green bag with some things, and a shopping bag as well. Is that pretty much everything that you own?

EAT: Yes, unfortunately. I've had more but it was all stolen.

SHAFER: The Francisco Public Library sees so many homeless patrons that it became the first in the nation to hire a full-time social worker. Her name is Leah Esguerra. She spends her days roaming the library floors, keeping an eye out for regulars who look like they could use her help. She finds one she knows, huddled in front of a computer screen.

LEAH ESQUERRA: Michael. I know you're watching something right now. So I'll talk to you later. Alright, I'll check in with you.

SHAFER: Esguerra is a licensed therapist. She uses that training to develop relationships with patrons.

ESQUERRA: I find a safe topic to talk about - the books that they read here, that they borrow here, or the movies they rent from here.

SHAFER: Esguerra actually hires some of the formerly homeless patrons she's helped. Now, they do outreach under her supervision. One of them is Joe Bank, who hitch-hiked a ride to San Francisco a few years ago. He landed in Golden Gate Park, homeless.

JOE BANK: Former drug addict, alcoholic.

SHAFER: Having been on the streets, lived on the streets, how does that help you do what you do now?

BANK: Coming at somebody with compassion for having been through that sort of thing, I think, you know, their walls kind of fall down. Because they realize, like, I'm not trying to make them do anything they don't want to do.

SHAFER: What difference do you feel like you're making?

BANK: Wow. Well, it's a true blessing is what it is. You know, I'm 32 years old and I really was not sure what I wanted to do with my life up until I started doing this work. And then realized, you know, this is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing.

SHAFER: The success of San Francisco's program is getting noticed. Other cities, including Sacramento, Salt Lake City and Philadelphia now have social workers at their libraries.

For NPR News, I'm Scott Shafer in San Francisco.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Shafer