The San Francisco Public Library is more than just a book-lover’s sanctuary—it’s a place of refuge and redemption for the city’s homeless community. But the homeless haven’t always been quite so welcome amid the building’s hushed holdings. For many years, these visitors took advantage of the open doors for free internet access and restrooms, causing disruption that grew increasingly destructive—they bathed in the sinks, did drugs in the stalls, and even threatened and cursed at other patrons. So in 2009, the Library partnered with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and hired a full-time psychiatric social worker named Leah Esguerra. Over the past seven years, Esguerra has shepherded around 800 homeless library visitors towards support from social services, and around 150 have even found permanent housing.
Esguerra directly engages with the homeless patrons, tackling complaints about unruly behavior and providing information about where to find meals, shelters, and legal assistance. In more extreme situations, like encounters with those with medical conditions, she conducts full clinical assessments and connects the visitors with San Francisco’s homeless outreach team for further case management. She also trains the library staff to handle any behavioral issues they might witness and supervises her supporting team of “health and safety associates”—formerly homeless people who are employed at the library after completing a 12-week vocational rehabilitation program.