Libraries hire social workers to help homeless patrons

Justine Janis is a social worker at the Chicago Public Library's Bezazian branch in Uptown.
(Terrence Antonio James / Chicago Tribune)
Chicago Tribune

In the past, when homeless people left their personal belongings in the aisles of the Addison Public Library, security guards might have asked them to leave.

But that was before the library hired a social worker — someone who viewed the problem from another angle.

“We started looking at patrons in a different way, that maybe some of the behavioral issues we were having at the library were stemming from other needs we could address,” said Mary Medjo Me Zengue, director of the Addison library.


Public libraries have long been a refuge, not just for readers but also for people with nowhere else to go during the day — people who sometimes sleep in chairs, use the bathroom sinks to wash themselves or inject themselves with drugs in bathroom stalls. Sometimes they have been kicked out. At best they’ve been left alone.

But now a growing number of libraries across the nation are facing the issue head-on, hiring social workers to help connect people with housing, healthcare and food. The Chicago Public Library has a social worker who splits time between two of its Uptown branches, paid for by local hospital system Amita Health. Amita plans to hire social workers for more Chicago library branches in coming months. Amita also pays for a social worker at the Evanston Public Library.

Amita funds the social workers through donations from employees and money set aside for community programs. Not-for-profit hospitals must show they’re spending money to help their communities to justify their tax-exempt status, and the hospital system saw a need for treatment of behavioral and mental health, said Cody McSellers-McCray, Amita’s regional director of community health.

Placing social workers in libraries has caught on in other cities around the country as well, including Denver, New York City and Washington, D.C.

Chicago licensed clinical social worker Justine Janis, who leads a monthly call for library social workers around the nation, estimates that more than 30 libraries now have full-time social workers.

The San Francisco Public Library is said to have been the first in the nation to add a full-time social worker, Leah Esguerra, back in 2009. Since then, Esguerra said she has helped more than 120 people find permanent housing and made contact with patrons about 7,000 times.


Esguerra also oversees a team of formerly homeless people who now work in the library, providing peer counseling and outreach to patrons.

“The people who are struggling are already here at the library,” making it an ideal place to reach out to them, Esguerra said.

She says every library could use a social worker, even those that don’t face homelessness in the same way that San Francisco and the Chicago area do.

When she’s at the Bezazian branch in Chicago, social worker Janis often sits at a small table near the large front windows. The 29-year-old also walks around the library chatting with people, getting to know them. “We want to respect people’s privacy but also let people know … we’re available,” Janis said. “This is new for Chicagoans.”

“For years, we’ve had people coming in we can’t fully help,” explained Mark Kaplan, branch manager at the Bezazian branch. “We’re not behavioral health professionals.”

On a recent chilly weekday afternoon, the library brimmed with young children, students and men slouched over tables, resting.


One middle-age man motioned Janis over to his table, quietly asking her where he might find a shelter for the night. She spent the next half-hour explaining options to him, learning more about his difficulties and giving him handouts detailing assistance programs. As they spoke, an anxious-looking, middle-age woman in a gray hoodie stood behind them, waiting for her turn to consult Janis.

They were among the dozens of people Janis said she has helped since starting at the Chicago Public Library in September. She held a similar job at the Evanston Public Library.

Among the people she assisted in Evanston were an elderly homeless couple who’d been visiting the library for years. A social service agency had reached out to the couple in the past, but they didn’t want to leave the library, which they considered their safe space, Janis said. She got to know them, and in time, connected them with an agency that found housing for the couple.

She also worked with an immigrant who was too proud to reach out when his finger swelled with infection. Janis said she helped him see a doctor and sign up for Medicaid.

And she helped 71-year-old Shelia Wideman flee a rodent-infested home for a better apartment in Evanston. Wideman said she sometimes has trouble understanding things, but Janis worked with her to find housing and set up doctors’ appointments.

“I really didn’t know about her at first, but I needed help,” Wideman said. “She was just a wonderful person to work with, even to talk with.”


Sometimes just talking to patrons, providing emotional support and letting them know they aren’t alone, can help, Janis said.

Many traditional library patrons — those who go to the library to read or study — also seem to support the program.

“I see a lot of homeless people coming in all the time,” said Ashle Anderson, a graduate student at National Louis University who studied at Bezazian on a recent day. “If there’s a social worker available, they can maybe … talk to people if they need substantial help.”

At the Addison library, the social worker also helps many teenagers and Spanish-speaking families. The library is across the street from a junior high, so teens and pre-teens often flood into the library after school.

“It’s not realistic to tell a 12-year-old kid who’s been in school all day and sitting next to six of his friends, ‘You have to be quiet,’” Medjo Me Zengue said. “They’re just not capable of that.”

In the past, security guards might have booted noisy kids from the premises, she said. But one of the library’s previous social workers had a better idea. She suggested establishing social zones within the library where kids could talk to one another at reasonable volumes, away from quiet areas for adults.


Another suggestion was “restorative justice” with kids who still misbehaved. Now, instead of being asked to leave the library, a disruptive teen might instead be asked to apologize to patrons he or she disturbed or be asked to work in the library for an afternoon. To make up for boorish behavior, the teen might hand out snacks to other kids or spread mulch outside the building.

“We’re keeping them here but letting them know what the rules are and finding a reasonable balance,” Medjo Me Zengue said.

Schencker writes for the Chicago Tribune.