SAN FRANCISCO A crowd of more than 50 people, jackets pulled up against a chilly drizzle, waited for the metal gates to the Main Library to scroll open one early winter day.
"Soon as the bell rings, it's a mad dash for the restroom or to get first dibs on the computer," said Matthew Paul Maes, who lives in his car and visits the library several times a week, mostly to read and work on his own laptop.
For Maes and dozens of other homeless and marginally housed people, the library near the Civic Center is a refuge offering six floors of seating, access to books, magazines, movies and a bathroom. For the past few years, it's also had a resource that makes the branch here a pioneer in the changing attitude toward homeless library patrons a full-time social worker.
"Here, whether you are homeless or not, people find a safe place," said Leah Esguerra, the social worker whose team has helped find permanent housing for at least 60 people in the past four years, and has referred hundreds of others to mental health or employment services, food kitchens and shelters.
"Sometimes someone is sitting at a table, and it's their sanctuary," Esguerra said. "It's often easier to come here than a general assistance office."
Libraries in cities across the country have seen their roles expand in the past decade. While they maintain their digital and print resources, more are turning outward, offering community services, programming, cafes and, increasingly, homeless outreach.
"It's a way for the library to contribute to the community in a significant way," said Maureen Sullivan, president of the American Library Association. "We are not just a repository for books."
In Salt Lake City, volunteer outreach workers at the library offer referrals to mental health, substance abuse services and shelters. The Free Library of Philadelphia trains and pays formerly homeless patrons to help those in need of services. Other libraries have offered summer camps for homeless children and art, music appreciation and Internet classes.
The Sacramento Public Library, which several years ago adopted rules to deal with sleeping, panhandling, harassment and even "pervasive odor," has teamed up with the Downtown Sacramento Partnership to employ a homeless outreach worker.
"If there is someone who looks like they need help, I just introduce myself and tell them what my role is," said Crystal Jordan, who visited San Francisco's Main Branch last fall to see how Esguerra and her team work.
"It's a delicate issue, but most people are usually willing to open up."
Jordan's visit was one of many hosted by the library here. Esguerra gets inquiries and visits from people around the world interested in the innovations that are now part of her daily routine.
Former homeless trained to help
A former social worker at the Department of Public Health, Esguerra was initially wary when her boss there called her in for a talk. After considering the transfer, she said, she realized it was a perfect fit.
She had been working with mentally ill and substance-abusing patients and had a track record of building relationships with her clients. It was a matter of bringing her skills to the library, a nontraditional environment for offering help.
These days she has a team of five assistants, all trained outreach workers who were once homeless. Four are part-time interns, but one, a former house painter from Sacramento, is now a permanent library employee.
Kathleen Lee lost her business and was struggling with drug addiction when she moved to San Francisco at the height of the recession. She and her partner, who had never before been homeless, lived in their car. When that broke down, they moved to the streets.
An acquaintance there told her about an outreach program for the homeless. She went to a mobile health clinic, then eventually to a detox program. A few years ago her caseworker asked if she wanted to work at the library.
"I said yes," said Lee, who now also works part-time as a counselor at a women's shelter. "But I didn't know what I'd be doing, if I'd be shelving books."
These days she walks around the library checking for people who look like they need help. She knows some of them. Librarians and staff refer others. She gently awakens people who are sleeping and checks for anyone bathing or washing clothes in bathrooms, which are both prohibited and may be signs of homelessness.
"It's a revolving door," said Esguerra, who assesses cases and presents them to the health department, where they're assigned to case managers. "Sometimes it takes several attempts. I never close the door."
Last year, she and some of the library staff held the sole memorial for a regular patron who was murdered at a homeless shelter. They ate cupcakes, drank coffee and shared stories about the man who had quietly and politely spent his days at the library's Patent and Trademark Center.
"He touched a lot of people," said Esguerra. "He had a lot of friends here. A lot of times people just feel so isolated."