By Emily Nonko.
Before 2009, the San Francisco Public Library’s bathrooms often became spaces of contention, with security staff escorting patrons out of the library, sometimes arresting them if they were found bathing, sleeping or injecting. But that year, the library hired the first library social worker in the United States, Leah Esguerra, marking a shift in attitudes that have since spread to library systems across the country.
“The idea was to reach out in a way that’s compassionate,” says Esguerra. “We have security, but the role is different.”
Starting from Esguerra, the San Francisco Public Library now has a team of Health and Safety Associates (now known as HASAs) who use the bathrooms as outreach space. HASAs have since expanded their work outside bathrooms and provide outreach on all seven floors of the main branch. They also work at other branches to support staff and inform patrons about resources and services. The program has placed at least 130 patrons into stable housing, Esguerra says.
San Francisco’s experience directly inspired change at the Denver Public Library. In 2012, the Homeless Services Action Committee — an internal working group with the Denver library — made recommendations to add a social worker to staff. The library eventually hired social worker Elissa Hardy in 2015 to begin building the library’s Community Resource program, bringing on additional social workers and peer navigators. The program has gone from serving 434 library customers in 2015, when it was just Hardy, to 3,500 served in 2018.
Both the San Francisco and Denver programs have grown as affordable housing needs and homelessness increase in each city. The San Francisco Public Library budgeted to hire six HASAs this year; currently, five work with Esguerra. For 2019, Denver Public Library budgeted for a team of 10, including four social workers and six peer navigators — the team now covers all 26 locations within the Denver Public Library.