Librarian Liz Coleman, who serves on a new Homelessness Advisory Committee at the Nashville Public Library, says her co-workers are frustrated they can't help everyone. One regular patron died of exposure; another was hit by a car and died shortly before he was to receive housing.
''It was a feeling of kind of helplessness,'' she said. ''You see these folks every day, so you can't help but care about them. But what are you going to do? You can't take them home with you.''
But librarians don't have to shoulder the burden alone: In a partnership with other agencies, the Nashville library hosts drop-in hours with city social workers and mental health counsellors.
They helped Susan Hulme's sister-in-law after she was hospitalized and couldn't work to get food stamps and other resources for finding a new job. The woman was embarrassed, and intimidated by the bureaucracy of the social services agency. Going to her library made it easier.
''It was more friendly, more accessible,'' Hulme said. ''It was a safe place for her to tell her story.''
Other exceptions include Pima County, Arizona, where public health nurses wander the county's 27 libraries with stethoscopes around their necks, offering blood pressure checks and identifying difficult cases for more care.
In Weber County, Utah, public housing workers rely on librarians who know their homeless patrons by name to help them locate people approved for housing vouchers.
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What do you do to help homeless library visitors?