In 2008, the San Francisco Public Library considered a very unusual question. How, they asked the city’s homeless, can our library better serve you? 

Officials weren’t looking for book club ideas. Over the past decade, the shrinking social safety net has turned many libraries into major care providers for the underprivileged. The homeless, in particular, rely on libraries for daytime shelter. It’s a big job, one that libraries — perpetually cash-strapped and understaffed aren’t sure they’re equipped to handle.

Take San Francisco. Officials knew that homeless patrons had a range of special needs. Some had immediate medical concerns. Others wanted help finding temporary shelter or using the Internet to apply for unemployment benefits, disability insurance and jobs. These needs required time and full-time staff, not harried librarians.

As a solution, the SFPL hired Leah Esguerra, its first full-time social worker. She has been in demand — in 2014, Esguerra worked with more than 3,500 people. She spends most of her time helping homeless library patrons find shelter. She has also established working relationships with the city’s public health and housing departments. She even teamed up with the nonprofit Lava Mae to offer free weekly showers outside of the main branch. 

Other libraries have followed suit. Last summer, the Los Angeles Public Library created a job resource program, offering job-search and résumé workshops. The move coincides with a 12 percent jump in the city’s homeless population from 2013 to 2015. The D.C. Public Library added its own social worker several years ago. The Denver Public Library did so last summer.

But not every library can afford such supports. In the past decade, there has been an 8 percent reduction in the number of librarians per library in urban areas. During this period, state and federal funding has been hacked in half, forcing strapped local governments to make up part of the difference.

These cuts have been costly, particularly for large urban spaces. The Trenton Free Public Library in New Jersey, for example, has downsized considerably since 2008 because of a 50 percent budget reduction. Los Angeles has lost nearly all of its state and federal funding, forcing local sources to boost its support by $20 million, according to federal data. Detroit didn’t have the money for such a rescue, closing 15 of its branches over the years.  

And at the same time, libraries are dealing with rising crime rates, including an uptick in stabbings, shootings, drug use, narcotics sales and even prostitution. On a humid Florida afternoon in 2014, a homeless man crept up behind someone making a copy at the Sarasota County Public Library’s main branch and stabbed him in the back. The victim staggered to the circulation desk, leaving a trail of blood down the stairs. Several months later, at another Sarasota County branch, police caught a homeless couple cooking meth on library grounds. The couple slept in a small homeless encampment behind the library and spent most days inside for shelter.

It has gotten so bad that the Sarasota County library’s director has put together a presentation on such techniques, gaining national attention from other worried systems.

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And some librarians aren’t even sure they want an expanded role in social services.

John Bertot of the University of Maryland says the growing role as a social service facilitator has sparked debate within the profession over whether libraries are straying too far from their traditional mission.

“Homeless shelters would shuttle people between the shelter when it closed and the local public library,” he said. “That was causing challenges for some of these libraries because middle-class families, who have always been the base of support for libraries, were staying away.”

Sarabeth Kalajian, director of the Sarasota County library, echoed concerns that governments are dumping too many of their responsibilities onto libraries while simultaneously slashing their budgets.

“I think there was a bit of concern among librarians when the federal act came down that really transformed the way people apply for social services…some felt that was a kind of unfunded mandate.”

And this new role raises an even deeper question: how can librarians offer sound advice, not just on what books to read, but on issues that affect their patrons’ lives. Librarians have traditionally viewed their role as neutral providers of information, not instructors. Bertot says the line between providing objective information and instructing others in what to do with it is an almost taboo line to cross in librarianship.

Choosing the right or wrong Medicare plan, for example, could have major consequences, he said. “If a librarian helped you choose a plan that somehow didn’t cover medicine that you desperately needed, you’d be locked in for a year.”