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Safe & Welcoming For All

San Francisco Public Library, CA
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Innovation Summary

As urban libraries nationwide well know, people who are struggling with one or more conditions of homelessness, substance abuse or mental illness and have nowhere else to go sometimes spend their days at the public library. SFPL provides social service referrals for those who are open to them.

Problem Statement

The societal issue of providing services for people who are struggling with homelessness, substance abuse and/or mental illness - grappled with by legislators and service providers alike - affects urban libraries everywhere. SFPL staff excel at directing people to what they ask for and need. But when people are in obvious need and don’t ask for anything, library staff are caught in a bind. Those who would like to help need a way in, especially to connect with the patrons who are spending their entire days at the library whether it is using resources, seeking refuge or manifesting inappropriate behavior. These and other actions send a clear message to staff but the response isn’t nearly as obvious. SFPL staff who would like to help did not necessarily have the knowledge or appropriate skills to do so. Library staff was often frustrated by the physical and emotional toll on other patrons, on staff and on the library environment as a whole. To respond to these concerns, SFPL developed a health and safety program that has become a national model for connecting these patrons to key city services and assistance and also providing resources, training and information to library staff.


SFPL administration developed partnerships with the San Francisco Department of Public Health and San Francisco Police Department, two City departments with complementary missions but with skill capacity different than the Library’s. As a result of SFPL’s partnership with the Police Department, a police sergeant was assigned to supervise the SFPL building and grounds staff (dedicated security guards employed by the Library). This relationship opened the doors to Police Academy which provided training on a higher level than had been available previously. As a benefit of SFPL’s partnership with the Department of Public Health, case workers from its Homeless Outreach Team (HOT) were placed in the Main Library. They surveyed library users and confirmed assumptions that many patrons filled otherwise-empty hours of their days at the library. The workers were charged to roam the building (sporting HOMELESS OUTREACH TEAM on their vests) so patrons interested in moving into housing could make their own connections with HOT. Simultaneously, SFPL staff received training by Public Health professionals to enhance their understanding of mental illness and homelessness. Although acknowledged as a constructive response to a complex situation, relatively few patrons took advantage of HOT to gain a foothold into housing. Changing tacks, SFPL hired a social worker to be stationed at the Main Library full-time. Once on board, the social worker began providing direct referrals for social services and SFPL hired formerly-homeless individuals as Health and Safety Workers to offer needy patrons connections to free, basic resources.


Partnering with other City departments has led to placement of a social worker and a police sergeant at SFPL; expanded knowledge of and access to social service resources for staff and patrons; established a proactive approach to minimizing serious incidents; provided opportunities for formerly-homeless individuals to gain job skills; and connected those in need to available services. Some of the partnerships’ outstanding outcomes have been: • The development of uniform consequences for those who violate SFPL’s Behavior Guidelines; • The creation of an appeals process for patrons whose library privileges have been suspended as a result of their behavior; • Improved communication between SFPL branches and patrol officers, greater understanding of SFPL’s needs, and faster responses from the Police Department to all SFPL calls; • An elevated level of professionalism for SFPL’s Security staff; • Regular trainings for SFPL staff by San Francisco Police Department and Department of Public Health; • Peaceful visits by the vast majority of the more than 2.1 million people in the Main Library in calendar year 2012 - incidents reported to Security accounted for fewer than .0002% of all visits; • Connections made by the social worker to patrons for case management; • Internships for Health and Safety Associates, a rotating group of five interns who transition into non-library jobs using skills acquired at SFPL; • Adaptation and replication of the SFPL model at, e.g., Pima County (Arizona) Public Library and Edmonton (Canada) Public Library; and • Generation of national and international positive media coverage.