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Library Systems Embracing Their New Roles As Social Service Hubs

Next City: “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 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…

And across the country, there’s been increasing discussion of how libraries can address homelessness and mental health issues. A 2018 report by the Chicago Tribune estimated there are now more than 30 library systems across the country with full-time social workers. “In social work we have this term called a ‘protective factor,’” says Hardy. “The library is a protective factor for people, which is basically a place or a thing where we’re helping to support people, and not change things negatively for them.” One of the key lessons from San Francisco and Denver so far: as much as possible, hiring peer navigators and HASAs who have come with lived experiences of homelessness and other adverse life challenges, making them uniquely qualified to do outreach at the library…”

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