library

Compassion in the Stacks

ON A RECENT Friday afternoon, Joe Bank makes his way quietly through the stacks in the San Francisco Public Library’s main branch. Books aren’t on the 33-year-old’s mind. He’s on the lookout for people in need—people who might need the same social services he once did, when he was homeless and living in a city park.

Bank isn’t just a concerned fellow citizen—though he certainly is that. He’s also on the job, as part of the country’s first in-house, library-specific social work team. Officially, he’s known as a HASA, one of six Health and Safety Associates employed by the library in partnership with the San Francisco Department of Health. The public library HASAs are all formerly homeless, thereby possessing an innate ability to notice the telltale signs of unhoused people in need of a helping hand. Bank’s boss is Leah Esguerra, the country’s first full-time psychiatric social worker employed in a public library.

Esguerra’s small outreach team is tasked with more than answering questions or offering help to clients who need assistance locating or securing social services. HASAs also train library staff on how to respond to patrons in need and how to diffuse and de-escalate tense situations with calm, collected compassion. Furthermore, working as a HASA is a six-to-12-month vocational training program, after which the outreach workers can graduate to other social service jobs. (Bank is currently the only HASA who has stayed on longer than a year.) Esguerra says that because her staffers are all formerly homeless, they find a special purpose in their ability to give back to people in situations similar to their own. “They love the routine and their contribution,” she explains.

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Jim Rice, editor of Sojourners magazine, has been a member of Sojourners editorial staff since 1989. He has also served as director of Sojourners Outreach Ministry and as coordinator of Sojourners Peace Ministry. He currently serves as a Research Fellow for the New Media Project at Christian Theological Seminary.

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