Promoting Dignity, Compassion and a Community Living Room

Essays Interviews Back to Top

Promoting Dignity, Compassion and a Community Living Room

Essays Interviews Back to Top
Promoting Dignity, Compassion and a Community Living Room

“San Francisco Public Library Main Branch looking down” by Joe Mabel is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

In 2009, when the San Francisco Public Library became the first library in the United States to hire a full-time social worker – Leah Esguerra, LMFT – it became a national model for library-based social services. Leah has since been profiled by numerous news outlets, and she and her team have shared their experiences with libraries across the country. Megan Martenyi, adjunct researcher for Public Dialogue at SFMOMA, sat down with Leah to explore how her work and San Francisco’s Civic Center have changed over the past decade.

MEGAN MARTENYI: Tell us about the genesis of your role and how things have changed since 2009.

LEAH ESGUERRA: The library’s mission has always been about democracy in motion. That’s the reason why they brought in a social worker – to serve people who are experiencing homelessness or anyone needing social services. And to support the staff – the librarians – who are not trained to deal with these issues.

Things were different when I started. The economy had tanked. I ended up seeing people I called ‘the newly homeless’. People who up until recently had jobs and homes. Many of them were seniors who had gone through their retirement and their savings. I had teachers and computer programmers and nurses who found themselves here for many different reasons, whether they lost their job or because of domestic violence or health issues. Some of them came from other parts of the country because they didn’t want their family to find out they had lost their job and become homeless. So they came to San Francisco.

The bulk of my career has been in this part of the city – South of Market and Civic Center, and I have seen how things have changed in the last few years. Now I don’t see as many people coming in to ask for assistance with employment. Now what I see is just a lot of the neighborhood. The chronically homeless folks. The homelessness is really visible, as is the drug use. That’s how I see the demographics changing.

MM: How have these changes impacted your work?

LE: When I first started the needs were not as significant. Now there are more needs than resources. My team is actually case managing people. And with the increasing need, we have become very creative. So, for example, I am part of the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team – due to a restructuring but also because of the housing crisis. We serve the most vulnerable – people who, if they don’t get help now, whether its medical care or permanent housing, might die in the streets soon. Those are the ones who would make it to case management.  

MM: I imagine that with the influx of tech companies to the area, a lot of the other social services that used to be in the neighborhood have changed location. Has that impacted the way you do your job?

LE: I think it still boils down to housing resources for people. When I first started in 2009, my position was tied to housing. Through the San Francisco Homeless Outreach Team we had over 300 single room occupancy hotel units – or SROs – available for our clients to access. And now we’re down to about 30. And I don’t think it’s because of the budget. I believe it’s because of the high cost of rent and the fact that there are fewer SROs. There was this hotel in the heart of the tenderloin – the New Pacific – that we would send clients to to get stabilized. And I always say ‘if only walls could talk’ because now it’s been converted into a corporate hotel for business people. We used to send the most challenging clients there and now it’s not available for them anymore because its serving a different population.

MM: What does your team look like? How many workers?

LE: We are now a team of eight people. I’m the supervisor, and it’s either seven or eight what we call Health and Safety Associates, or HASAs. They’re all formerly homeless. Some of them were actually outreached here and I linked them with services and once they found that their situation had stabilized, they decided they wanted to give back to the community that helped them. Some of them have not worked for many years, like decades, but we really value their experience. As a social worker, I have the training and the education but they have actually experienced everything. I can tell patrons how to access the shelters, but they can actually say, well when I was homeless I used such and such shelter and this was my experience. We really encourage them to share their own personal stories. They give people hope.

One of the great things about the HASA program is that some of what we do wasn’t planned, it just happened. I call it serendipity. For example, the HASA program has also become a vocational training program. Many of the HASAs that I have worked with have moved on. One, who was homeless for decades, riding the train all night long, is now working full time for the city and county of San Francisco Department of Public Health and he’s got a nice place with his wife and they go on vacations and they go to the opera. I mean, things that we would never see as a possibility when we look at a homeless person sleeping on the sidewalk. And that’s just one example.

MM: Tell us about a typical day of work at the library.

LE: I always describe us as on duty for 9-10 hours. I’m always here. Almost throughout the day. I’m hardly in my office but I’m very accessible. And I’m all over the place! On a typical day, the HASAs work between 3-5 hours, in shifts. And that takes into account their own personal needs. Some of them are still in the process of fully recovering from their situation, so they have appointments. Part of my work is supporting them.

We have a daily check in at the spot – we call it the spot – around the corner from the elevator, even though I have an office on the 6th floor. The spot gives us this vantage point where we are able to see everyone and everyone can see us. We consult about certain people as well as the HASAs own personal needs. I really value self-care. My belief is that if they’re happy, they can be effective in serving people and themselves. So we check in, staff will call us and say that this person is looking for a social worker or that person asked for a particular resource or this person might benefit from speaking with you or one of the HASAs. And we don’t wear uniforms. We want them to be able to come to us and not feel stigmatized.

My position has also changed since 2009, from being a social worker providing direct services, which I still do, to developing the HASA program and supervising the HASAs and supporting them, and building partnerships with the community, responding to the staff, providing trainings. And because we’re a national model, I get a lot of phone calls from other libraries in the country. The Denver Public Library and the Washington, D.C. Public Library – we’re pretty close, we’re always talking. We even had a public health nurse from Philadelphia, and library staff from libraries in other parts of the world—Australia, Korea the UK—come spend a day or two with us.

MM: What do you tell other library systems about this approach?

LE: That it just makes sense. That public libraries are a community living room. One of the few places where people can actually come in regardless of who they are. I consider it one of the last bastions of democracy. It really just makes sense for public libraries to serve everyone – the most vulnerable patrons or populations – people experiencing homelessness, mental health challenges, substance abuse, medical acuity – people who won’t otherwise be able to access services for so many reasons. For some it’s a lack of hope – why even try finding a place because there’s a housing crisis – that kind of stuff.

MM: Have you kept in touch with libraries that have started similar programs? To skillshare?

LE: Yes! The library social workers created this forum where we talk once a month on the phone, so I’m learning from them as much as they’re learning from us. And other libraries have come up with very innovative services. I think it might be Dallas where they hold a coffee conversation where they open the library and serve coffee to people – with librarians and library staff – to provide trainings and people can mingle so it’s not just about getting services but it really feels like a community living room.

MM: Why is the social piece important?

LE: One of the things that we’ve learned from our homeless patrons is that they’re not visible most of the time. People tend to not see them. I think the socializing is about them being visible, as well as building their own community. It’s also about connections. Not just with one another but also with library staff.

MM: I’ve heard that SFPL is trying to create a more ‘family friendly’ environment. Do you think changing who the library serves impacts people’s ability to get in touch with you?

LE: The philosophy and the mission of the library has always been about inclusion. I don’t think there will ever come a time when people will be excluded based on their situation in life – because they’re homeless, or have mental health issues, or are addicted to substances. We always focus on behaviors. And our leadership… their hearts are in serving everyone. So yeah of course, a family-friendly environment is always great, but I don’t think it should be at the exclusion of others who truly need the services here.

It can be interesting for us – for me and my team – when we hear people at the library say “that homeless person”. And for us, it’s like, he’s not homeless! Or she’s not homeless! We know they’re not. The staff here are very compassionate and welcoming. But it’s human nature that we make assumptions right away.

We had a patron here who was much loved and appreciated. He was very intelligent and polite, really nice to the staff. He would come in and just do his thing. People come here, homeless or not, and they access the resources, they read and borrow movies and stuff. And then one day, this person got murdered on the street. And it was in the newspaper. And the staff who knew him were shocked because they never thought in a million years that he was homeless. And they truly grieved him. We had a little memorial for him in the department. We got little cupcakes and talked about him, you know, good things. And they learned a lot about him. That he came from a well-educated family – you know, not the stereotype.

MM: If you could have access to unlimited funding, and could expand this program however you’d like, what are some of the other services you’d include? What would you like to see the library take on?

LE: It’s not so much about the library, it’s about housing. That is the hardest thing right now. A lot of times we tell people, ‘we’re so sorry – we have all the resources to help you apply but it would take a few years for you to get housing.’ And adults are one thing, but the most heartbreaking thing is to see children on the street. If I was in charge there would be no children on the streets! Children should always, every single night, have a safe place to go to sleep. And not just at night. Every day. So that’s been our conversation.

And right now we have funding for a vocational counselor to help library patrons who are experiencing homelessness and want to get back to the workforce. We have a great vocational librarian and vocational program here, but this is going to be specifically for people who are homeless and will address the unique challenges that they experience that us regular folks would not encounter if we were looking for a job. Like – where will they wash their clothes? How do they access appropriate clothing for work if they sleep on the street at night, or in a shelter? We’re hoping that the vocational counselor will be able to address these kinds of needs for people looking for housing for example.

MM: Are there things you would like the SFMOMA audience to know about your job at the library or about the services that the library offers?

LE: You cannot determine if a person is homeless by just looking at them. They might not be homeless. Maybe that person is experiencing poverty, they don’t have nice clothes, but they’re not necessarily homeless. A friend of mine is a doctor and he always gets mistaken for a construction worker because of the way he dresses and how he is. And we train other libraries in this message as well. One of the HASAs who is a great speaker, he’ll say, ‘if you had seen me when I was homeless, I looked like this.’

MM: Do you have advice for SFMOMA and the Public Knowledge Library branch?

LE: Our philosophy, the mission of the HASA program, is to provide a service that is compassionate, effective, efficient, strength-based and one that promotes dignity. I think this is what has made San Francisco Public Library’s social service model effective, and why it is being adopted by every library. For example, the Las Vegas Public Library administration came here to shadow us and then invited us to go to Las Vegas and give a training to the staff. And they told us the reason they chose to have us give that training was because they saw our compassionate approach to serving people.

You know I always say, it’s not rocket science. It’s just treating everyone like how you want to be treated. Like a human being, regardless. And this is a population that is very sensitive to kindness because they don’t get it often. They get blamed for every single political issue, social and economic issue, and like I said, some of them feel like they’re never seen. When we show them kindness it goes a long way for them.

I definitely think people experiencing homelessness and people experiencing poverty will visit the SFMOMA branch. So just remember that we’re all the same. We’re all human beings. Homelessness, poverty, those are situations in life that don’t make the individual. It’s not their identity. I guess just serve that population however you serve other people – like tourists or San Francisco residents – extend the same services to all people, including the homeless folks.