February 17, 2018

DPL, SFPL Develop Innovative Services for the Homeless

lavamaeLibraries across the country provide services to the homeless, but some go beyond standard outreach, throwing their doors open and welcoming those community members in. Among them are the Denver and San Francisco Public Libraries, where unique services aim to bring additional dignity and humanity to library programming for people experiencing homelessness. Both libraries have hired full-time social workers in recent years to help address the homelessness crises in their communities, and that commitment shows through in their creative partnerships and programming.


Who hasn’t seen a mob of people waiting outside for a library to open its doors? At 9 a.m. on September 8th, patrons at the Denver Public Library (DPL) experienced something more than a wait for the library to open: they had live music, bagels, and a cup of coffee. Technology and instruction librarian Simone Groene-Nieto and the Engage adult and family programming group at DPL were looking for a way to provide fun, entertainment-oriented services to bring some joy to the homelessness people who come to their library every day. With so many people waiting outside the door for the library to open every day, it seemed like a great idea to have a pop-up concert.

When funding became available, the group jumped on it. Using $200 from the programming budget, Groene-Nieto reached out to members of the local music scene and booked the band Piper Cub. DPL social worker Elissa Hardy promoted the program with local merchants. Donations of bagels and coffee came from Panera Bread and the library’s in-house cafe.

From start to finish, the planning took three weeks. Over 100 patrons attended what Groene-Nieto called “one of the most joyous days I’ve had at work.” The program gave the usual library patrons a good start to their day, and she added that while there are no plans to create a series at this time, the program has “opened eyes of people who serve [the] homeless at DPL for fun services for the homeless.”


The San Francisco Public Library (SFPL) connected with Lava Mae at a City Council hearing. Lava Mae, which translates to “wash me” in Spanish, is a not-for-profit organization that retrofits decommissioned city buses with shower facilities. On Tuesdays the Lava Mae bus parks outside the main branch of SFPL, offering free showers to anyone who needs one. The library provides the water hookup for the bus. SFPL Health and Safety Associates provide outreach and referral services to people waiting to use the showers, and now reach out to patrons using the library’s restrooms for hygiene purposes to let them know about the new service. Approximately 40 people were able to take a shower on September 8th, the program’s first day, and the number of participants has been increasing since the partnership started.

Lava Mae always offers its services in partnership with other organizations that serve the homeless, and Leah Filler, Lava Mae’s global community engagement coordinator, works with the library to facilitate the program. According to Filler, “The library is unique (as a partner) because they are not a homeless service provider, they are a public library. What’s great about them is that they are one of the few institutions in San Francisco that has adamantly kept their doors open to the public, all members of the public, including people that are homeless. In doing so they preserve public restroom access, which is extremely limited right now in San Francisco. So they are known as one of the only places people can go to use the restrooms, get on the computer, have a quiet space to read for the day. Even in the face of pressure from constituents who want the library to restrict that access, they have kept their doors open.” Working with the library enables Lava Mae to connect bathing and hygiene services with other resources and library services.

Building Literacy-Rich Communities
Hosted by Library Journal and School Library Journal, Stronger Together is a national gathering of thought leaders and innovators from across the country who will share where and how partnerships between school districts and public libraries are having success. Join us May 10–12 at the University of Nebraska Omaha, as we explore the impact these collaborations are having on the institutions, communities, and kids they serve.


  1. Frenso Co. Public Library had a very successful Homeless Connect Resource Fair in October. These partnerships with local agencies are very natural. So much potential for good in the local community.