Homeless, jobless flock to libraries

Julia Scott Mar 21, 2012

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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