Visitors to San Francisco are often shocked by the number of people living on the streets. Some of those homeless are among the 5,000 people who each day use the city's Main Library.
On a recent weekday morning, a few of them join the dozens of people waiting for the library to open. One of them is Clarissa Eat.
“I’m in and out of shelters, unfortunately,” says Eat. “Trying to get housing right now. I'm just drifting.”
It's a cold morning, by San Francisco standards anyway. The 39-year-old San Francisco native is standing on a sidewalk heating grate to stay warm, toting everything she owns in a red suitcase and shopping bags.
“Unfortunately, I've had more, but it was all stolen,” says Eat. “They'll steal everything -- your jacket, shoes, anything.”
San Francisco's public library is a de facto daytime shelter for dozens, if not hundreds, of people in Eat’s situation and others struggling with mental illness or substance abuse. A few years ago, the San Francisco Public Library became the first in the nation to hire a full-time social worker to help them.
Her name is Leah Esguerra. She spends her days roaming the library's six floors, keeping an eye out for regulars who look like they could use her help.
Clarissa Eat waits for the San Francisco Public Library to open. Her suitcase and two bags contain everything she owns. She's been helped by the library's social worker.
“I introduce myself. ‘Hi, I'm Leah. I don't know if you know that there is a social worker here at the library. I'm a social worker.’ And I just spread the word around,” says Esguerra.
Her training as a psychiatric social worker helps her ease into conversations with library users.
“I find a safe topic to talk about. The books that they're reading, that they borrow here, or the movies they rent from here.”
Esguerra and her team work to develop relationships with patrons. But she says the time it takes to build trust doesn't always work with such a transient population in search of housing.
“Sometimes you're so close, I'm about to tell them, ‘You just got accepted’, and then we cannot find them. So I usually ask them to keep on checking in with me. 'Keep on coming, let's talk about what your needs are.' ”
Upstairs Esguerra hunts out potential clients. She quietly walks up to a 30-something, somewhat disheveled man. As he huddles over a computer screen, she whispers to him.
“Michael. I know you're watching something right now. I'll talk to you later. I'll check in with you.”
A few years ago, Esguerra began hiring some of the formerly homeless patrons she helped. Now they do outreach under her supervision.
One of them is Joe Bank, who hitchhiked a ride to San Francisco a few years ago. He landed in Golden Gate Park, homeless and struggling with substance abuse. He says that experience has helped him in his new job at the library.
Joe Bank was homeless until he was helped by the San Francisco Public Library's social worker. Now he works for the library as a homeless outreach worker.
“Coming at somebody with compassion for having been through that sort of thing, you know their walls kind of fall down,” says Bank. “Because they realize I'm not trying to make them do anything they don't want to do."
After getting his act together with help from Leah Esguerra and her outreach team, Bank is now part of that team.
“You know, I'm 32 years old and I really wasn't sure what I wanted to do with my life until I started doing this work,” says Bank. “Then I realized, this is it. This is what I'm supposed to be doing."
Even a city as liberal as San Francisco has its limits. Some library users complain about the homeless using the library bathroom for things like shaving or bathing. And after one patron was caught urinating on bookshelves not once, but twice, Sen. and former Mayor Dianne Feinstein urged the city to toughen rules and punishment.
Next week, says Chief Librarian Luis Herrera, the Library Commission will discuss new regulations aimed at some of the worst, most offensive behavior.
“Whether it's drug use or physical assault, we're not going to tolerate that,” says Herrera.
Even as he tries to strike that balance -- creating a safe, secure library where everyone, including the homeless, feels welcome -- Herrera says the social worker is here to stay.
“Initially there were some questions about whether this was a good idea," he says. "But it's taken off. And I think, in fact, we would look at the idea of expanding.”
And it's catching on. Other California cities, including San Jose and Sacramento, now have social workers at their libraries.