(UR) San Francisco, CA — Over the years, the steady stream of homeless people frequenting the San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) has not gone unnoticed. In 2009, rather than turn the homeless people away and deny them access to more public space, the library saw an opportunity for substantive intervention. Hiring the first library-employed psychiatric social worker, the SFPL began a program that sought to extend their services from the informational into humanitarian outreach.
Modifying their community mandate to become more active and inclusive rather than as passive archives, libraries are able to adjust to new realities of urban space while reasserting their role as community center — even if that role is changing. For the SFPL, this reinvention has become a cornerstone for an often ignored group within our society, offering homeless people jobs as well as social care while implementing holistic strategies that work towards reintegration.
In what began as a small project with one social worker, this idea of library intervention has grown, stretching from San Francisco to New York, and even to Edmonton, Canada. This, according to the CBC, stems from the way the library as a public space has changed in the “digital age.” Where many people once went to the library for books, research materials, and a quiet place to study and conduct meetings, noisy coffee shops, e-books, and the internet have stepped in to fulfill those needs. For homeless populations, however, this has turned the library into a refuge that it wasn’t specifically designed to be.
For many homeless, the library offers something of a safe space removed from the realities of the street, offering services without the need for a permanent address to apply for a membership. There are restrooms, computers to connect to the internet, and often heat (or AC), making the library a perfect spot to spend the day. While government is slow to legislate and acknowledge homeless access to public spaces, and people in general lack clear understanding of the many social issues and the basic financial realities that lead to increasing indigence in America, this move comes at an important time.
This service, whether we realize it or not, is massive. Often turned away from strictly capitalist spaces like cafés and other business, and denied access to public space by city bylaws and coercive architecture, homeless people are increasingly marginalized. Finding a haven that keeps its doors open to indigent populations is something of a victory in itself. The fact that there is a growing trend in outreach has truly recast the library as a public place, once again putting it at the centre of a community — even if it might be a community we don’t fully understand.
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