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Housing and Homelessness

Public Libraries Are A Source Of Help For The Unhoused — But Their Reach Is Limited

volunteers serve food at a table outside to unhoused people. There is a white tent covering the table.
The Durant branch library on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood has a neighborhood support day once a month.
(Courtesy of the Los Angeles Public Library)
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City officials urged unhoused residents to take refuge from last week’s heat wave at, among other places, any of the city's public libraries. A woman experiencing homelessness told LAist she would use the library because being outside felt like the desert and was uncomfortable.

The library is often the first place of refuge for unhoused people, regardless of weather conditions. It underscores the need to explore investing in solutions that expand the role of the library to also help address the region's homelessness crisis.

A spokesperson for the Los Angeles Public Library said the library is no stranger to partnering with the city to aid people experiencing homelessness. It currently runs The Source program, a one-stop-shop” for unhoused Angelenos to get help with Medi-Cal enrollment, employment assistance, free haircuts, housing assistance and other services.

We realize that there needs to be something more on a regular basis providing that support and connecting people to resources
— Joyce Cooper, director of branch library services for the city of L.A.
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It also currently partners with the city to coordinate neighborhood service days at the Durant branch library. The Durant Branch Library, on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood, hosts Neighborhood Support Day with City Councilmember Nithya Raman's office.
An entire parking lot is set up with tables and tents and people can show up and get help, a meal, and find community, according to the spokesperson.

Although these are valuable services, they only operate at certain branches, and only once a month. Joyce Cooper, director or branch library services for the Los Angeles Public Library., said it wants to do more to help unhoused patrons.

“We’re working on having social service organizations present us with a plan we can use,” Cooper said. “We’re looking at hiring service representatives who are from the community to help our patrons navigate the system and connect them to services. We realize that there needs to be something more on a regular basis providing that support and connecting people to resources.”

Cooper said the library system is working to get more money added to its budget to hire more staff dedicated to helping unhoused people and the city council, along with the mayor, are on board. She said the library system already has close ties to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority and nonprofits who are already doing this type of work.

outside of the durant branch of the library, tents are set up over tables for unhoused people. Volunteers are helping.
At neighborhood service days, the entire parking lot is set up with tables and tents and people can show up and get help, eat food and find community, according to a library spokesperson.
(Courtesy of Los Angeles Public Library)

Jesse Walker-Lanz, assistant director of public services for the L.A. County Library, said they used to partner with the county’s Dept. of Mental Health.

“Pre-pandemic, we had social workers embedded in our high-need locations,” Walker-Lanz said. “That program sunsetted at the beginning of the pandemic and resources have changed so it hasn’t begun again.”

Although the program stopped, Walker-Lanz said they still reach out to their partners on an as-needed basis, especially if an unhoused person is experiencing a mental health crisis.

The city library system is looking to expand how Angelenos gain access to mental health services. It’s looking for organizations to provide professional mental health and social services at the Central Library and other branches on an as-needed basis. Recommendations came from the library’s Safety and Security Project, a staff-led effort that’s been ongoing for five years.

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Walker-Lanz said libraries are willing to be part of the solution.

“Our broader purpose is connecting people with information and resources so if we are able to help linked unhoused folks we’re happy to be part of that,” he said.

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