At San Francisco’s Libraries, Formerly Homeless Staff Support Those Still in Need

Unidentified homeless man, San Francisco Public Library
Since 2009, the library has helped more than 300 people access temporary and permanent housing and has connected close to 1,000 with other services including safe places to sleep and shower as well as free food, medical care and mental health counseling. Photo: Courtesy Leah Esguerra.

San Francisco libraries, long a refuge for the homeless, now employ once-homeless patrons to reach out to those in need.

About ten years ago, staff at the library took stock of how many seemingly homeless people (shopping carts full of belongings are often a clue) spent each day in the library, often using bathrooms to bathe. But rather than plan their eviction, the library director contacted the city’s public health department and asked for a social worker specifically to help homeless library visitors.

In 2009 Leah Esguerra, a psychiatric social worker with experience in both mental health and homelessness counseling got a full-time office at the city’s main library. Since then, the library has helped more than 300 people access temporary and permanent housing and has connected close to 1,000 people with other services including safe places to sleep and shower as well as free food, medical care and mental health counseling.

The program has since expanded. While Esguerra remains at the main branch on Larkin Street, often at the front door where she can greet long time homeless patrons and seek out new ones, she now has a staff of at least six “HASAs,” or health and safety associates, all formerly homeless patrons of the library, who gently seek out people they think might need assistance.

Shannon Zucharme, 34, of San Lorenzo, was a HASA for two years. Zucharme says drug addiction and other poor choices led to her losing her home and job, resulting in two years of homelessness, from 2013 to 2015 during which time she says she came to the San Francisco library to use the internet, check out books and use the restroom.

She became a HASA after a chance encounter in Golden Gate Park, after she had stopped using drugs. Looking for a friend she was worried about at the park one night, Zucharme came across the homeless “HOT” (Homeless Outreach Team, a collaboration of several city agencies) talking to people there, “and I wanted to do what they were doing.” She looked them up online, applied and was hired as a HASA.

Asked to share one success, Zucharme talks about a 73-year old veteran she saw at the library “who seemed tired and worn out.” The veteran spent his days at the library and slept at a church at night. With his permission, Zucharme put him on a list for available housing and found that he qualified for a retired home for veterans. At last check, Zucharme says, the veteran still called the place home. Today, Zucharme is an outreach worker on the city’s street medicine team where her specialty is working with homeless opiate users to help connect them to treatment and other resources.

Joe Banks, 35, who now works as a HASA, said that during his homeless years he sought out the library because it was “safe, indoors, a sanctuary, everybody is welcome, I didn’t always have to watch my back, and I could escape the daily stress and harshness of living in the elements.”

Esguerra says that many homeless people come to the library specifically looking for services, having heard about the program on the street. “The people we meet don’t really know what they need, so we recommend services with no cost such as clothing, mobile showers, food, and medical care,” Esguerra said, “And we encourage them to keep coming back to us.”

No food is allowed in the library but homeless patrons are referred to nearby facilities including Tuesday’s “Curry, No Worry,” free vegetable or vegan curry at the United Nation Plaza about a block away. The library also hosts a pop up care village once a month outside the main campus with free food, books, clothing, haircuts, health care and music. “It’s a gathering of the community,” says Esguerra.

Joe Bank, 35, spent time in the library during his homeless years, though that was before the HASA program started. He had been living at Golden Gate Park and met the HOT team who helped him find a place to live, surgery, substance treatment and then permanent housing. Once Banks was settled in a place to live, about five and a half years ago, his case manager told him about the library’s HASA program. At first, he had a paid internship with the program and now works thirty hours a week.

Banks says he has no set script for talking to people he approaches at the library, but he makes sure they see him before he starts to speak so he doesn’t startle anyone, “and I make sure to have a welcoming smile on my face.” Banks says he often will start by saying he hopes he’s not bothering the person, and if he notices a pack, for example, he may suggest a free clothing storage program near the library where people can go twice a day for changes of their own clothing.

“I’m proud of myself for having been through what I’ve been through and now it’s a full circle, and I’m on the other end of giving services to people whose shoes I used to be in,” says Banks. “That’s a pretty awesome thing.”


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