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The placement of full-time licensed social workers in public libraries nationwide will become even more pronounced in the next few years, experts say.
Public libraries in San Francisco, Denver and more than 50 other cities have added full-time licensed social workers to their staffs to help patrons experiencing homelessness, mental illness or other issues—problems that are all proliferating and that librarians are not trained to handle.
Nearly 600,000 Americans experience homelessness on any given night and the number is rising by about 2% a year, according to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Many of them spend their nights in shelters or on the streets and their days in public libraries.
“This place has become a place of sanctuary, a place of rest,” said Leah Esguerra, the social services supervisor for the San Francisco public library system. “This is a place where individuals can stay when the shelters close at 6:30 in the morning or for people who don’t have any place to go or they’re living on the streets and the library is open.
In 2009, San Francisco became the first city in the country to embed a social worker with its public library staff. Esguerra, a marriage and family counselor by training, is employed by the city’s Department of Homelessness and Supportive Housing and has an office at the city’s main library branch on Larkin Street. She spends her days helping library visitors find housing, therapy, health care, substance abuse treatment, financial support and even jobs.
“The library staff are the ones who are faced with having to help them address the issues that are brought to them, and they’re not equipped to do that,” Esguerra said.
So in 2009, the staff reached out to the city’s Department of Public Health, which sent in uniformed outreach workers to walk through the city’s libraries. That program quickly led to the placement of Esguerra as a full-time social worker to help the patrons and train library staff on issues of homelessness, mental health and trauma. Occasionally, Esguerra said, social workers also help children whose working parents cannot afford child care and drop their kids off at the library for safe keeping during the day.
Since Esguerra started the San Francisco program, 55 other libraries nationwide have added full-time social workers to their staffs, according to Whole Person Librarianship. Five have part-time social workers and approximately 122 have taken on social work interns who elect to do a rotation in a library as part of their college work.
In addition, approximately 44 libraries across the country—as well as a few in Australia, Sweden and Canada—employ part-time health and safety associates—or HASAs—who once experienced homelessness first-hand and spend their days chatting with library patrons to learn what they need and how the social worker can help.
“If there’s a problem, call security, but if not, call Leah or the HASAs,” said Esguerra, the first to incorporate HASAs into a library staff. “They have a conversation with the patron [to learn] if they need access to clothing, food, when did they see the doctor, addressing their situation, do they need a shelter?”
“They engage with our patrons and make them comfortable,” City Librarian Michael Lambert, who whose office also is at Larkin Street library, said of the HASAs. “They get them connected to services.”
Sara Zettervall, the founder of Whole Person Librarianship, which offers consulting and training for librarians, said some libraries, like San Francisco’s, pay for their social workers by partnering with city agencies or by shaving one librarian position from the staff to make way for a social worker.
Unlike librarians, who focus on protecting patron privacy, social workers have access to the case files of those who use social services so they can get information about what the patron needs and has already applied for, Zettervall said.
In addition, said Zettervall, a public librarian in Minnesota, “They have real expertise in how to deal with a social situation that we aren’t necessarily trained for in library school. So if somebody has a mental break while in a library, that’s something we’re not trained to deal with, but a social worker might be.”
She added: “Library staff is never going to be complete mental health care providers. Having an expert social worker can really help with that learning.”
An Invitation for More to Seek Refuge?
Still, Zettervall said some librarians and even patrons fear that placing a social worker in the library is an invitation for more homeless or mentally ill community members to seek refuge there.
“How do we deal with the conflict that comes up when somebody smells bad and a patron doesn’t want to sit next to them?” Zettervall said. “It’s important that each library system and library staff talk about what their standards are.”
In San Francisco, Lambert said, “We are intentional about making everyone feel welcome. … We are here to serve the most underserved and vulnerable populations. People experiencing homelessness are some of our best customers. They rely on us for sanctuary and for the same services others in the community rely on us for. We don’t separate that population from any other.”
Beth Wahler, director of the school of social work at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, agreed.
“People worry [that] if you build it, they will come,” she said, “that you will wind up with more patrons with really high needs. That doesn’t seem to be what’s happening. They’re servicing the patrons who are already there and they don’t know what to do with them.”
Wahler said some social work schools, like the one at the University of Chicago, are offering joint classes for library and social work majors. Likewise, state library associations have added workshops on topics like trauma-informed librarianship to boost the skills of librarians.
That shift, Esguerra said, will become more pronounced over the next few years.
“This is the future of libraries, to have a social worker,” she said, “in order to reach out to not just people who are housed but to every member of the community.”
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