ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Many public libraries today have become one-stop shops for people in need. People come to libraries to find jobs, social services and sometimes just a warm place to take shelter. NPR's Colin Dwyer reports on how more libraries are turning to trained social workers for help.
COLIN DWYER, BYLINE: Trish doesn't have many places to turn.
DAVID PEREZ: Come on in.
DWYER: She's living out her elderly father's home without a job because she can't afford the care that he needs.
TRISH: I need help finding a place.
DWYER: And Trish, who only wanted to give her first name to protect her and her father's privacy, says her balance sheet seems stained with more and more red ink every day.
TRISH: It's all outgoing. There's nothing coming in. That's for sure. And I'm kind of stuck in a rock and a hard place because of my credit. So I need to make enough money that I can afford to live somewhere.
DWYER: Across the table, David Perez nods quietly.
TRISH: I am just really drained. I'm absolutely miserable. I want a job.
DWYER: Difficult as her situation is, she's far from alone. Lots of social workers see cases like hers come through their offices. What is unusual is where you'll find this office, the Long Branch Free Public Library in New Jersey. David Perez says he's the only social worker in the state employed permanently by a public library. The idea was a surprise to him when advisers in his master's program for social work suggested it.
PEREZ: (Laughter) And I was like, what? That really threw me off because I'm saying to myself, my resume says military and it says health care business. This is the school of social work, and then I'm being advised to go to the Long Branch Public Library. I just didn't get it.
DWYER: In a separate interview the same day he met with Trish, he says he gets it now.
PEREZ: Anyone can come in here no matter who you are. You don't need to be of any class or you don't need money. You can take advantage of all of the services that we offer.
DWYER: Those include tech courses, career counseling, help for people who have lost their homes, even drug overdose treatment. Librarians have always had more on their plate than the stereotypical silence-obsessed introverts of movies and TV. But between the opioid epidemic and a recent national uptick in homelessness, that plate can feel filled to overflowing, as Amanda Oliver discovered after getting her degree.
AMANDA OLIVER: I'm trained in information organization. But nothing - nothing - I learned in my master's program helps me with what being a librarian actually looks like, which was caring for the patrons.
DWYER: Working at a downtown Washington, D.C., public library, she saw some patrons passed out drunk and felt physically threatened by others. Her very first week, an altercation prompted her colleagues to press the panic button under the circulation desk. But it was their reaction afterward that shocked her.
OLIVER: Everyone was completely unfazed on staff until it clicked in my brain like, oh, this is not uncommon.
DWYER: It wasn't, and she eventually quit.
OLIVER: None of this is to say that there weren't really wonderful moments and parts of the work that I absolutely love and value. But the toll that it started to take on my mental health was just not worth it.
DWYER: In the past decade, library science programs have introduced more instruction on community outreach. Some libraries offer training of their own or turn to outside partnerships. And several dozen libraries across the country are doing what the Long Branch Library has done - bring in a trained social worker. The San Francisco Public Library is credited with being the first back in 2009.
LEAH ESGUERRA: They had to figure it out because it's never been done before. There was no blueprint.
DWYER: That's Leah Esguerra. She is the social worker San Francisco brought in. She's developed systems to connect patrons with employers and health services. And she says she's helped find permanent housing for scores of people. Esguerra says working in this setting doesn't just take a load off librarians. It also encourages people to actually take advantage of these services.
ESGUERRA: Coming to the library, it's not attached with any stigma unlike coming to other traditional settings. So because of that, I feel that public libraries are really the best places to really reach out to the population.
PEREZ: All right. I'm going to say, please call today.
DWYER: Back in New Jersey, Trish is ready to head to the circulation desk to check out DVDs for her dad. But first, she's got to wrap up with David Perez.
PEREZ: Either way, I'll call you.
PEREZ: I'll let you know what's going on.
DWYER: Before she goes, Perez confirms some calls to potential employers and offers a word of support.
PEREZ: I'm here to help you get back up. We're going to connect the dots. I have a laptop. I have a printer. I have a phone. We can fax. I have coffee if you want some coffee, you know, and together, we make it happen. That's what we're doing here.
DWYER: At the door, Perez repeats that pledge like a mantra. Together, we make it happen, at the library. Colin Dwyer, NPR News, New York.
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