Nate Nicholson spends a lot of time at the Boston Public Library. He browses the internet on computers and flips through books. It’s also a place to stay warm in the winter and cool during the summer.

He says it doesn’t hurt that the library’s social worker, Taylor Morris, always looks out for people who are homeless like him. She gives him free bus tickets and clothes and connects him with housing assistance.

“She is spectacular. She helps a lot of people,” Nicholson said. “Like I can tell her anything.”

Morris says it may sound odd for her to work at a library, but it’s actually a perfect fit.

“In social work, we have this ethos of meeting people where they are, and we know that people are at the public library because they feel safe and welcome here,” she said. “They’re part of communities that can really benefit from different resources and support.”

As homelessness has spiked and mental health has declined in recent years, libraries across the country are increasingly hiring social workers to help patrons. In Massachusetts, Cambridge’s public library became the first one in the state to hire a full-time social worker in 2021. Boston followed suit a year later. Worcester’s had their inaugural social support specialist since January. And Somerville’s library just created the position.

Libraries have long been welcoming places where anyone can access more than books and computers. Library systems often offer reading classes, language courses and assistance applying for jobs, among other services. The new social work positions, library leaders say, reduce the load on staff trained on the Dewey Decimal System but then charged with responding to patrons overdosing in bathrooms and seeking help after losing their homes.

“Once we had got a social worker, it’s like, ‘Where have you been all of our lives?’ It’s like, ‘We’ve needed you and you’re finally here,’” said Maria McCauley, the director of the Cambridge Public Library.

A young woman with long blond hair smiles for the camera at a library.
Taylor Morris, the Boston Public Library's social worker, poses for a photo in a hallway at the Copley Square branch on May 1, 2024. Morris says the library is a perfect fit for social work because it's a place where people feel safe.
Sam Turken GBH News

Shortly after becoming executive director of the Worcester Public Library, Jason Homer noticed a problem. Some patrons would fall asleep in the library, and others acted out by shouting at staff. Administering Narcan to reverse overdoses had become a part of the job at the library.

Homer checked some data the library collected on tense incidents with patrons and realized that some of their actions were actually calls for help. He deduced that people fell asleep because they had stayed up all night outside guarding their belongings. Others yelled because they were frustrated they would have no bed to sleep in that night.

“I could see a real through line of people in need and [the community] not being able to meet the need,” Homer said. “And so I said, ‘Let’s try to fix it ourselves.’”

People go to libraries to seek information, he thought. Adding a social worker — who could connect folks with health care resources and other assistance — lined up with the library’s mission.

It took some time to create the position and secure funding for it, but the Worcester Public Library now has Azajuah Johnston as its social services specialist, a role nearly identical to Taylor Morris’ at the BPL. Both employees spend much of their time meeting with patrons, listening to their needs and building trust with them. They also train their colleagues on strategies like conflict resolution so they, too, can better respond to tense situations.

Morris noted that a lot of patrons she works with have had negative experiences with social services. There’s also a stigma about seeking help from certain agencies. But people have more positive feelings about libraries, which gives the social workers opportunities to connect with them. One way she tries to make it easier for patrons to connect: she hosts a monthly coffee hours at the BPL with free food, where anyone can walk in and talk with her.

“There’s a bit of informality to [our services] that I think is more accessible to a lot of people,” Morris said. “We don’t have any eligibility requirements. We’re not screening you when you get here. We’re not even making sure you have a library card.”

Shelves with pamphlets about different social services in Worcester.
Information is on display at the Worcester Public Library on May 3, 2024, about local social services.
Sam Turken GBH News

Still, the social workers stress that they’re not case managers and, therefore, can only do so much to help.

Before taking the job at Worcester’s library, Johnston used to be a clinician at a group home where she helped people with disabilities follow behavior plans and made sure all their needs were met. But at the library, she says social workers can’t “hold people’s hands” like that. In Worcester and Boston, Johnston and Morris are helping thousands of people who visit both libraries’ different branches each day.

So after meeting with a patron in need, all they can often do is explain how to access a specific resource or refer them to the appropriate agency or organization that can help. Johnston and Morris said they’re at least developing close connections with those agencies so that they prioritize patrons from the libraries.

“It’s frustrating,” Johnston said. “Certain people, you can tell that they’re eager and they want the help. But they have to show that they’re willing to do the work.”

Mona, who’s homeless and declined to use her full name due to concerns about her safety, has noticed these limitations. Mona appreciates that Morris provides her with food and clothes. But Mona said Morris hasn’t had as much of an impact toward her larger goal: finding an apartment.

“She can only assist in a minimal way,” Mona said. “The social workers don’t have enough pull.”

Another challenge is that social workers are still rare in Massachusetts libraries due to lack of funding. The Massachusetts Board of Library Commissioners can provide money to pay for social workers temporarily. But it’s up to libraries and localities to find long-term funding.

In other states, libraries that can’t afford additional staff have relied on local university student interns, volunteers and social workers from other organizations.

Jean Canosa Albano, an assistant director at the Springfield Public Library, said she would love to hire a social worker. However, she needs to prioritize keeping the doors open.

“It comes down to a matter of the budget. We are filling a lot of roles already. Perhaps the next step, if it were possible, would be to add more staff,” she said. “We’re not there yet.”

Experts say they expect more libraries to secure funding for social workers because the need for them is becoming increasingly clear.