How Denver Public Library Balances Books and Being A Homeless Shelter

Denver Public Library 1
(From Colorado Public Radio, by

“A visit to the library likely means checking out a book or movie. But the Denver Public Library says its central location has another job these days — it’s somewhat of a homeless shelter.

“That is a role that we have not asked to play, but are playing,” says Michelle Jeske, the city librarian for Denver.

When the doors of the library open at 10 a.m. a mix of people usually wait outside to be let in. Some have materials to return or pickup, and others are seeking shelter.

James Short, who describes himself as residentially challenged, is one of the group waiting to get in. He’s a writer, and says he comes to the library nearly every day to work. Without a home, “I’d be drinking a lot more Starbucks coffee and using their internet,” Short says.

Of the crowd gathered at the Central Library on this day, Short was the only one willingto be interviewed. One man said he was too high to talk. Another didn’t want the plasma center to know he was homeless or he wouldn’t be able to donate.

Elissa Hardy, one of the Denver Public Library’s social workers, points out that the library is one of the few public bathrooms in the city. “We don’t open until 10 a.m. [weekdays]. So as you can imagine, if you’re leaving shelter at 5 or 6 in the morning, that’s five to six hours that you don’t have access to the bathroom.”

Two years ago, the Denver library didn’t have a social worker on staff. Before Hardy, she says that the Denver Library was doing the best it could. Now it’s becoming a lot more common position for libraries.

“When I started, this was the third city to get a social worker in the library,” Hardy says. “And now they are dozens around the country.”

Hardy admits she never saw herself working for a library, simply because she knew it as the place “where I could come to get my books.” But she’s here, saying hello to patrons as she walks the seven floors of magazines, newspapers, and (yes) books. The building is huge — 540,000 square-feet. In 1990, Denver voters approved a $91.6 million ballot measure to build the central library and other branch locations.

Today, Hardy says this multi-million dollar building is basically serving as Denver’s largest day shelter.”

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