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How Public Libraries Have Become Spare Homeless Shelters (Hard Times USA)

As social safety nets shrink, libraries are more vital than ever as safe spaces for people with nowhere else to go.

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Karen Strauss, the San Francisco’s main library’s acting head librarian, said she remembers talking about hiring a social worker for its homeless patrons “at least 10 years ago.”

Of course, public libraries have always been sanctuaries for lost souls, lonely hearts clubs for the odd and the awkward, community centers for the elderly and infirm, respites from an indifferent world for those out of work and out of options. That they offer free information, entertainment and education and staffs that tend to go out of their way to be helpful are bonus attractions. For many of society’s outcasts, the library’s allure is even more basic than books. Many simply need a safe place to sit.

“It’s very crazy out there,” said Mike Alvarez, 42, who visits the library several times a week, at different times, “and it’s very sane in here.” He said he migrated to San Francisco from Stockton a year ago, but has had no luck securing work. He said he lives in a basement with several day laborers who let him crash for free as long as he leaves during the day and tries to find work.

In interviews with half a dozen regular guests at the library who identified themselves as homeless, all expressed relief and gratitude for the library’s clean, well-lighted space, and the warmth of the building and its staff.  “Nobody acts like I don’t belong here,” said Roger—“just Roger”—a 38-year-old regular who described himself as “sometimes homeless, sometimes not, sometimes using (drugs), sometimes not.”

San Francisco’s main library, part of an elegant square of buildings anchored by City Hall, happens to be the local branch library for San Francisco’s poorest neighborhood. The Tenderloin district, abutting the downtown tourist district, is home to the majority of San Francisco’s social service providers and single-room-occupancy (SRO) hotels. Many of its residents live on Social Security checks and rely on the help of soup kitchens and food vouchers for survival. It has more residents with substance abuse and mental health issues than other neighborhoods, a challenge for any library.

It has long had its own “behavioral guidelines,” revised from time to time, that include no sleeping for prolonged periods and no bathing in the bathrooms. It also has security guards and metal detectors all patrons must pass to use the facilities.

The goal, said outreach worker Lee, is never to oust a patron or make them feel unwelcome. Indeed, the first thing she does when she starts her shift is hit the library’s restrooms and carrels, looking for bathers and sleepers. Gently explaining the rules gives her an "in" to introduce herself and offer help. For bathers, she can tell them, through first-hand experience, where to find free showers available in the city 24 hours a day, and the best times to go to them. For the sleepers, she might tell them about a program at a nearby church that allows homeless people to sleep in the pews during the day.

Her hard-luck story is her greatest selling point. Lee, a former house painter, lost her home in Sacramento when the economy tanked and work dried up. She and her partner moved to San Francisco in 2009 hoping the high-tech bubble would mean more opportunities, but it didn’t. They lived in their car with their dog until the car broke down. Then, for the first time, the two middle-aged women lived on the streets.

Lee, who hid a long heroin habit, changed her life when outreach workers at a bottle and can recycling center told her about a detox program at San Francisco General Hospital. Lee kicked her habit and she and her partner also received help landing a room at a Tenderloin SRO.