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Public libraries: The new homeless shelters

SAN FRANCISCO—Not everyone who spends all day, every day in the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library is down and out. Only mostly everyone.

Kathleen Lee knows this because she spends hours a day walking the six floors of the vast, sky-lit building, looking for patrons who might need real help. They are everywhere: in the carrels, amid the stacks, on the computers. Some wear all they own on their backs and all they’ve lived through on their faces. Others hide in plain sight. Lee knows this, too, since she was homeless a few years ago. So she tries to let everyone know who she is and what she does.

“I strike up a lot of conversations,” she said at the end of a recent three-hour shift.

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