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Homeless, jobless flock to libraries

City libraries are trying to revamp to help homeless patrons, even as their budgets are slashed.

Tess Vigeland: Step into pretty much any city library in America, and you'll find all kinds of people in the stacks -- students, retirees, and the poor and homeless. Libraries aren't just for books or movies anymore. Increasingly, they're a place to turn for job skills, shelter -- and now, some social services for people who have nowhere else to go.

Julia Scott has more.


Julia Scott: A few years ago, the San Francisco Public Library started seeing a flood of homeless people -- sleeping in the study areas and washing up in the bathrooms.

David LaFleur was one of them.

David LaFleur: I used to be one of the people who used to pretty much keep their hygiene up here in the restroom, you know? You gotta wash your face, you gotta brush your teeth.

LaFleur is 51, and he's been homeless for six years. These days he's living in a group home with a dry and sober program. But he still uses the library's computers every day to look for a job.

LaFleur: Let me get my resume -- these are some of the jobs that I was applying for yesterday through Craigslist. This is a driver warehouse position.

Main Branch librarians found they had nothing to offer LaFleur and other people who came in asking for help. So, three years ago, the library hired the first social worker in the country based out of a library. Her name is Leah Esguerra.

Leah Esguerra: What I've learned from being here is that the library's goal is to include everybody, to make the library accessible for everybody, and not to screen anybody out.

Other libraries have added social workers, too. That's because city libraries find themselves on the front lines of the national recession.

Lisa Gieskes is coordinator for the Housing, Homelessness and Poverty Task Force at the American Library Association.

Lisa Gieskes: Libraries are a public service and the communities that we serve are dealing with a poverty rate of over 15 percent, according to the last U.S. Census.

Gieskes says for newly unemployed Americans, just having access to the Internet is a big deal. In recent years libraries have added job skill centers and resume tutoring, too.

Gieskes: You can actually see spikes in library usage with the recession because people know that we provide a free service.

Not just free books, but free programs. In North Carolina, Brigitte Blanton runs something called the "Winter Series" for the Greensboro Public Library. It all started a few years ago when the library invited homeless folks to eat inside to get them in out of the rain.

Then, they asked their homeless patrons what else they needed. The answers were a little surprising.

Brigitte Blanton: We were like, oh great! We can do job and career counseling, we can teach them how to use the Internet. But some of them were trying to find out where they could sleep that night.

So the library started meeting people's basic needs. It got nurses from a local university to do blood pressure screenings. A dentist donated dental kits. It did haircuts, too.

Blanton: And you're saying, it takes a haircut. Where are they going to get the funds for a haircut? We take those things sometimes for granted.

Libraries, of course, face major budget cuts. Some have lost funding even as they start to add programs for homeless people like David LaFleur.

LaFleur: We're constantly fighting for resources, and to make sure that these resources don't get cut off. Pretty much that's where I'm at -- fighting for my life on a constant basis.

The library is still a place to come for answers. That's why David LaFleur will be back tomorrow.

In San Francisco, I'm Julia Scott for Marketplace.

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Note that this same San Francisco library was the scene recently of crime and thefts.
SF homeless are like a superbug.
Many libraries are just plain noisy, (Staff included) and also serve as de facto day-care centers.
But a number of well-funded suburban libraries have huge stocks of Trending magazines, which are available to their affluent patrons for free. Tea partiers and others "donate" ranting screeds (books) for book sales to prosletyze the masses
While I have a lot of issues about the dunbing-down of libraries, and also experiences with homeless negativity, I don't have to 'flame' or "rant" on a Public radio blog.

Surprise, surprise. Bleeding heart liberal producers/editors/reporter believe that librarians (a narrow discipline) should be our point guards for serving the homeless. Wasn't the real story that these well-meaning but unprepared public servants are doing it but don't have proper training, are likely to duplicate other programs and therefore waste money? Shouldn't the local social services professionals appropriate a portion of library space where appropriate to provide the services they believe are needed? If a library(s) has really hired a social worker, rather than it being an existing social services employee who is redeployed to work out of a library, then I am appalled beyond belief that it was allowed to happen. Homeless deserve some services, but not necessarily at libraries any more than at police or fire stations. Perhaps some may remember a 5+ yr old Simpsons episode when Marge took the kids to the library only to find all the books were gone to make room for DVD movies, and all the seats were taken by homeless. That was a better commentary than Marketwatch provided, and it was a 5+ yr scoop.

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