Libraries, "the last bastion of democracy," are a haven for America's 500,000 homeless people, where literature, Internet access, and nonfiction can come together to provide respite from the relentless brutality of life on the streets.
In a series of moving portraits of homeless people using San Francisco, Sacramento and San Jose's public libraries, Fritz Hoffmann tells a visual story of forgotten people in quiet reflection and study, and makes us remember something we'd prefer to forget. The librarians in the story see their role as defending democratic access to information and ideas and public space -- in San Francisco, the library system now has a full-time social worker.
Jeffrey Matulich was looking for books by the author Henry Miller when he discovered the work of Kurt Vonnegut. “Sometimes there’s a lot of drama out there in the streets, and it’s nice to have some peace and quiet,” he reflected.
And Edward Rideau went to Sacramento’s main library branch with a title in mind—Statutes and Amendments to the Codes of California. “We need to lobby to amend existing laws to improve our quality of life,” he says.
In 2010 the federal government set forth an ambitious goal to end chronic homelessness by 2015. Numbers have declined, but according to a 2014 HUD report, more than 570,000 people are still without homes in America—and 20 percent of those are in California. Urban libraries fill the void, sheltering the homeless by day.
Cities have responded to homelessness with new codes of public conduct and trespassing ordinances enforced on persons deemed to be disorderly, unkempt, or of foul smell. The San Francisco Public Library has directly addressed the situation—it was the first in the country to add a full-time social worker to its staff. Leah Esguerra reaches out to homeless patrons in the main branch of the library. “Libraries are the last bastion of democracy,” she says.
California’s Homeless Find a Quiet Place [Fritz Hoffmann/National Geographic]