Saturday, July 30, 2016 Being a librarian now means also being at least a part-time social worker

At San Francisco’s main branch, a balance of outreach and keeping a lookout

By Jeremy Miller
June 29, 2016

People wait for the San Francisco Public Library to open. The Main branch of the library, where hundreds of homeless people spend their days, is the first in the country to keep a full-time social worker on staff. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

When Mark Hall began as an entry-level librarian at San Francisco Public Library’s Main Branch 28 years ago, he was simply looking for something outside the corporate world. Hall was well suited to the job, and over the years, he’s come to know almost every corner of the Main Library. He’s weathered budget cuts, changes in management, and the controversial 1996 move into the airy building at the corner of Hyde and Grove Streets, in Civic Center Plaza. In spite of the shifts, there is a simplicity and timelessness to library work that has kept him grounded. “It is a profession where you are helping people,” Hall explained, “not trying to sell them things they don’t need.”

 Frank Chavez is a longtime
library patron. He often sets up his 
“office” in the true crime section. 
Today, Hall is the acting chief of the Main. The library he now oversees is faced with what is arguably the greatest challenge of its 128-year history. As recent visitors can attest, San Francisco’s largest library has seen a drastic increase in the number of homeless patrons it serves. (Some have even dubbed it a “de facto day shelter.”) Mayor Ed Lee was so appalled by the scene he encountered during a visit in January 2014 that he demanded the establishment of a “zero tolerance” policy. In response, several months later, the library released its updated code of conduct. The list of 32 prohibited behaviors — including “depositing of bodily fluids on SFPL property” — hints at the spectrum of unsavory conduct encountered by staff.

In a city known for innovation, tolerance, and liberal social policies, homelessness has proven to be an intractable problem. Two out of three of San Francisco’s homeless residents are not living in shelters but on the street, according to federal statistics. That trend, says Hall, has manifested itself inside the library. “There certainly weren’t as many homeless patrons when I began,” Hall said. “But there also weren’t the housing shortages and the income disparities and the issues with injectable drugs. The city really has changed a lot.”

Carl Cohen has only started visiting
 in the past year, but has already taken
advantage of the library’s outreach program. 
And so has being a librarian at the Main Branch. To thrive here, Hall said, one must come to terms with the fact that it is not a sleepy suburban branch nor a cloistered university research library. “We make it very clear to our applicants that this isn’t always a quiet, peaceful place,” Hall said. “People who work here must embrace that urban reality.”
In other words, the days of merely shushing chatty readers from behind the reference desk are long over.

The Main’s staff of librarians and special outreach workers are not just taking a punitive approach. They are also reaching out to homeless patrons. The question is whether the SFPL can balance the important civic roles of offering a historically safe place for scholarship and learning while also providing a haven for the city’s homeless population.

Acute as the situation has become, it’s not exactly new. Katherine Ets-Hokin, an archivist at the SFPL, recently found a black-and-white image from the 1930s showing a large group of out-of-work men — all clad in suits and hats — sitting on the neoclassical steps of the former Main (today the site of the Asian Art Museum). Over the decades, familiar laments about the main library’s apparent decline have also been repeated. “I am ashamed to take tourists to see our Civic Center because of the fringe of bums and winos decorating the Main Public Library,” reads one letter to the San Francisco Chronicle. It was written in 1960.  

 Thomas Alvin recently relocated to
San Francisco looking for work.
Discouraged with his housing and
work prospects, he is planning on
catching a bus back to Denver. 
Its true, libraries are warm and quiet places for people without homes to go,” says Ryan Dowd, executive director of Hesed House, an Illinois-based homelessness outreach group. “But they are also sanctuaries from the tedium of homelessness. Being homeless is not just dangerous and exhausting — it’s extremely boring.”

In 2013, Dowd created a presentation titled “A Librarian’s Guide to Homelessness,” which he first delivered at his local public library in Aurora, Illinois. He expected it would be a one-off. Since then he’s traveled extensively, giving the talk at dozens of libraries across the country and in other countries, including Canada and Estonia. (A version of the presentation is also available on YouTube.)

“What I heard a lot of was, ‘How do we serve our homeless patrons better?’” said Dowd. “That surprised me. It was not about minimizing the disruptiveness or destructiveness of homeless patrons. It was about how to reach out to that demographic and serve them better.”

To that end, the SFPL has built a staff of librarians for whom social justice is an important calling. One of those staffers is Northern California-native Andrea Davis, who began working at the SFPL last August. Davis, 36, holds a Master’s degree in library science from Simmons College in Boston and has worked at a number of libraries in the U.S. and abroad. She says that the SFPL, like other large urban public libraries, serves the “broad brush of society.”

Homeless men sit along the original
San Francisco Library building, 1937.
In addition to assisting the homeless, Davis works often with the elderly and the recently incarcerated library goers — groups that tend to be on the opposite side of the so-called digital divide. Many of these patrons, she says, have a sense of what they are looking for, but often no idea about how to find it amid the library’s ever-growing digital archives. Compounding this lack of digital knowledge is a high prevalence of mental illness. “Even though we see some of these people daily, it’s hard to understand exactly where they are coming from and what they are going through.”

In spite of the job’s difficulties, Davis remains upbeat. She says in this age of creeping privatization, urban libraries are vital institutions. “Libraries are these democratic outposts where anyone is welcome,” she said. “People who want to work in an urban public library must have some awareness of social justice. It’s not just working in a warehouse full of materials. It’s helping a wide range of people with information in all of its forms.” 

Homeless men rest alongside the current
 San Francisco Library, 2016.

Indeed, the SFPL’s mission goes beyond connecting people with books and research material. In 2009, it was the first library in the country to hire a full-time social worker. Today, its staff of seven Health and Safety Advocates, or HaSAs — all of whom were once homeless — monitor the library’s six floors and bathrooms, offering resources on shelters, food kitchens, and clinics across the city to homeless patrons.

The idea for the HaSA program came about around 2000, just four years after the completion of the new $126.5 million main branch. At the time, homeless patrons in the library had become much more visible. “We had this beautiful new library, and we were hearing from patrons that they were uncomfortable coming there,” remembers the former chief of the main, Karen Strauss. “We set out to create a bridge between the people who come to the library as a safe and welcoming place and the resources that they might not know are available.”

Vietnam veteran Phil Means has spent many
hours at the library over the past 5 years.
He is well liked and prefers to spend time
in the quieter side reading rooms. 
To build that bridge, the SFPL partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and, in 2009, hired Leah Esguerra, the country’s first in-house library social worker. A licensed marriage therapist counselor by training, Esguerra says her job has evolved significantly over the last seven years. “When I got here, I asked my former supervisor [at the city Department of Public Health], what am I going to do?” Esguerra said. “She told me, ‘Start building relationships.’ That was the best advice I ever got.”

Esguerra has done just that, creating a new model of outreach based on empathy and personal relationships. Her job includes not just counseling the homeless, but consulting with staff about how to interact with their neediest patrons. The library has also partnered with the non-profit Lava Mae, which operates a bus with showers outside the library two days a week. (Since its program was introduced in 2009, several public libraries across the country — including in D.C. and Denver — have followed the SFPL’s lead, hiring their own in-house social workers.)

Wayne Schwoob is a long time library
patron and San Francisco resident.
At one point in his life he was a regular
extra on Nash Bridges.
But the most important piece of her work — and the one she is proudest of — are the library’s Health and Safety Associates, former homeless people employed as outreach workers. “The HaSAs are the backbone,” Esguerra said. “As a social worker, I can tell you to go to MSC-South [shelter]. But the HaSAs can take it to the next level. They can say, ‘This was my experience at MSC-South.”

Jerry Munoz is one of the Main’s six HaSAs (rhymes with “casa”). Stocky and clad in baggy blue jeans and a black T-shirt, Munoz zigzags a well-worn path, monitoring activity on computer terminals, scouting the desks along the margins of the stacks. In a single day, Munoz and the other on-duty HaSAs make three or four rounds through each of the Main’s six levels. He looks for telltale signs, like large bags stowed under tables or bottles of prescription medication scattered across desktops. Once he reaches the first floor he checks the men’s bathroom, to ensure that no one is using the sinks as showers or getting high in a stall. 

Champion is new to the library and has
 yet to take advantage of the HaSA
As a former homeless patron of the main library himself, Munoz knows the choice spots—places where one can hide out from staff undetected. A native of southern California, he was a supervisor at a J.C. Penney’s distribution center. Then, on Father’s Day in 2010, his 25-year-old son, Joshua, who was getting ready to enter a graduate school program at U.C. Berkeley, died suddenly of a brain aneurysm. “Basically, I just flipped,” he said, describing his rapid descent into alcoholism and homelessness.

As we walk the first floor, Munoz sees an elderly man in a dirt-stained Golden State Warriors jacket sitting in a chair, his head slumped awkwardly forward. Munoz knocks on the wall just above him. 

The man’s eyes snap open. “Sir, you can’t sleep in the library,” Munoz says, polite but firm. Munoz asks if he can help with anything — a place to get a meal, somewhere to sleep. The man shakes his head, staring ahead blankly. Munoz leaves him in peace. In this job, he says, it’s important to know when to push and when to back off.

Jerry Munoz holds his thick binder stuffed with forms and
information about the various San Francisco social services
library patrons can potentially
take advantage of.
“Anyone can become homeless,” he points out. “I’ve seen ex-doctors and bankers in here. You never know when you might need the help you can find at the library.”

In spite of the challenges in the city at large, their work appears to be paying off. Between July and December of 2015, the team provided resources to more than 2,500 patrons (Esguerra personally performed 437 assessments). Since the program began in 2009, around 150 clients have been placed in permanent housing. The new code of conduct introduced after mayor Lee’s visit also seems to be having a positive impact. In 2014, there were a total of 3,382 reported incidents; i
n 2015 — after introduction of the code of conduct in October 2014 — there were 1,694. (Although, the library does not track whether the infractions were committed by homeless patrons or not.)

Jerry Munoz makes his rounds around the library.
He estimates does as many as eight trips a day.
“We are a small effort here,” said Karen Strauss, pointing out that the SFPL social work team’s overall impact isn’t easily distilled into numbers. “It’s about providing resources, yes, but it’s so much more than that. It’s about connections.”

The American Association of Libraries seems keenly aware of this responsibility as well. Its Library Bill of Rights states that a “person’s right to use a library should not be denied or abridged because of origin, age, background, or views.” More recently, the ALA has further defined the social justice role of libraries, going so far as to say that it is “crucial that libraries recognize their role in enabling poor people to participate fully in a democratic society.”


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