Airo Hernandez is sitting in a fourth-floor office of the Denver Central Library, looking for help. His needs extend far beyond leniency for a misplaced book, assistance printing a resumé, or any obscure factoid a librarian could conjure. On this May day, Hernandez is trying to put his life back together, and he believes this place and the woman sitting across from him, Cuica Montoya, might be his best hope.

Hernandez moved to Denver from El Paso, Texas, in 2016, for a carpentry job he promptly lost because he didn’t get along with his boss. The lack of income left him experiencing homelessness, and on the streets, Hernandez, who has paranoid schizophrenia, sank into a life of meth and petty crime. Eventually, he rediscovered Christianity at a Mile High City homeless shelter and got sober. But the 33-year-old has never quite been able to outrun his past. His criminal history, mental illness, and homelessness have all been recurrent hurdles to employment and, therefore, any chance at getting a clean start.

Then, a couple of years ago, Hernandez, a hobbyist graphic artist, started using the central branch to escape the elements. It was there that an employee told Hernandez about the library’s peer navigator program, which is designed to help guide patrons experiencing hunger, homelessness, and mental illnesses toward social services, such as housing and health care. Enlisted by Denver Public Library’s team of social workers (a rarity in U.S. library systems), the six peer navigators are part of what is just the second program of its kind in the country.

Since Hernandez met Montoya, the peer navigator has helped him apply for disability insurance, confer with his public defender before court hearings, find substance abuse treatment and housing programs, and deal with an identity theft incident. More often, though, Montoya (who left Denver Public Library for another job this past year) simply provided a sympathetic ear. “She really pushed me to advocate for myself,” Hernandez says. “She really pushed me through some tough times that I’ve had.”

On this dreary spring day, Montoya and Hernandez are on speakerphone with a staffer at the Boulder County Court. Hernandez had called the Denver Police to report a stolen backpack, and the cops discovered an outstanding warrant for his arrest from an old charge in Boulder. Now he must pay a $500 bond or go to jail.

“Can he do that in Denver, though?” Montoya asks.

“If I’m not mistaken, he needs to do it in Boulder,” says the woman on the other end of the call. “Or the Boulder [County] Sheriff’s Office, but then I think they might actually have to take him into custody, if I’m not mistaken. But if he posts the bond, they will set him a new court date two weeks from the day he posts the bond.”

“OK,” Montoya says. “Thank you.”

“Not a problem. Good luck.”

Montoya raises her eyebrows as she hangs up the phone. She looks over at Hernandez, plaintive with a fading teardrop tattoo on his cheek. His shaking right leg is rattling a silver chain attached to a wallet that does not have $500 in it.

“We’ll figure this out,” she says.

Though they are a resource for everyone, public libraries are magnets for the deprived and underprivileged. These days, libraries are more than just a depository of books—they are places where citizens can stay plugged in and keep up with current events. Access to computers and the web enables anyone to be in touch with family and friends via email; to apply for jobs, school, or government assistance online; to type up and print off term papers or resumés; and to watch DIY videos about things such as home and auto repairs. Some of Denver Public Library’s branches even loan out various necessities—everything from power tools to pots and pans to prom dresses.

And, of course, with daylong hours and open-door policies, public libraries are also clean, climate-controlled spaces where visitors—including many of the reported 5,755 people experiencing homelessness in the Denver metro area—can find respite from the weather, use a restroom, or entertain and enlighten themselves with a book, recording, or online video. Denver Public Library’s central branch also happens to be a large, labyrinthine building with plenty of hidden and not-so-hidden places where people have been found drinking, dealing and doing drugs, fighting, and committing sexual assault.

Though they are a resource for everyone, public libraries are magnets for the deprived and underprivileged.

Recognizing all of these factors, Denver Public Library formed its Homeless Services Action Committee eight or nine years ago to find ways in which library employees could direct patrons in need toward help—and keep them from committing crimes, sleeping, and more or less living among the stacks. A few years after the committee formed, it recommended that the central branch become only the third library in the country, after spots in San Francisco and Washington, D.C., to hire an in-house social worker with training and certification their librarians did not possess. “If someone is in a library asking for help, they’ve probably been told ‘no’ a thousand times,” says Elissa Hardy, a licensed clinical social worker whose formal title with Denver Public Library is community resource manager. “We do not want to be another person telling them ‘no.’”

In four years, Hardy has built a team of four full-time social workers and two interns that covers the library system’s 26 branches and performs a wide range of services. They train library staff to handle visitors’ mental health episodes and related trauma, such as post-traumatic stress, and substance abuse incidents—for example, providing them access to Narcan, a nasal spray that’s been used to reverse 33 opioid overdoses at Denver libraries in recent years. The program is designed to give employees the tools and confidence to try to handle minor incidents without having to call security or the police. In addition, the social workers help librarians and staff take care of themselves, providing them with coping mechanisms for some of the issues and people they encounter through the course of their workdays.

But Hardy and company train their focus mostly on the patrons, connecting them to government programs and local services, such as the Bayaud Enterprises Laundry Truck, a free mobile laundromat that now stops at the central branch every week. The team doesn’t do casework, like traditional social workers or therapists, but they do stay connected and follow up with those who seek continued assistance. “We are seeing people multiple times to help them navigate these systems and just to provide emotional support,” Hardy says. “No one gets better in a vacuum. You have to have those relationships. And I think that’s the most important thing we’re doing here: doing whatever you can for that person in that moment, meeting them exactly where they are.”

The peer navigation program is a natural extension of that idea—who better to understand where a person experiencing homelessness is coming from than someone who has also experienced it? Montoya, for example, grew up middle class in Park Hill and went to the University of Northern Colorado, where she was introduced to alcohol. She dropped out but managed to build a family and a career in real estate before she was arrested for felony cocaine possession; she lost her job, her car, and her home. For a time she regained stability, but splitting with her partner sent her into a spiral, and for three years she lived on the streets, plunging any penny she could find into her veins via heroin. The library was the only warm, dry, and safe place she could go. “I don’t know anybody who’s outside who has their shit together,” she says. “It’s hard to do anything positive with no roof over your head. I would come here to message my mom and let her know I was still alive.”

Eventually Montoya had skipped bond so many times that authorities wouldn’t let her out of jail, and during that three-month stretch, she finally decided to get sober. Once she was released, Montoya gradually rebuilt her life through a transition program run by the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. And when she was settled in her own home, she decided she wanted to get into peer support. About the time she was completing her training—she had been sober and off the streets for roughly two years—she heard about the new position at the library. “This is a full circle moment,” she says. “Being able to sit across from somebody, look them in the eye, and be like, ‘I get it.’”

After Montoya makes another phone call with Hernandez to set him up with a bail bondsman, she wishes him luck and sends him on his way. She tells him to keep her updated—he has her cell number.

Montoya then walks out from the office into the bustling library. A cold rain has been falling intermittently all day, driving people from the street through the central branch’s doors. Many crowd around the computers on the third floor, where they watch YouTube videos and play solitaire or chess. Others sit in armchairs or are propped up at reading tables, some with books, others without, trying not to fall asleep, which isn’t allowed at the library because slumbering patrons are vulnerable to theft.

There’s no way to tell exactly who has a home and who doesn’t in the library, but it’s safe to say that at least some of the backpacks, suitcases, and plastic bags patrons are lugging around contain the entirety of their possessions. In 2015, Hardy’s first year at the library, she connected with at least 434 visitors, many of them experiencing homelessness. The following year, that number nearly tripled. In 2018, Denver Public Library’s social workers and peer navigators made contact with more than 4,016 individuals.

That rise has coincided with an increase in crime at Denver libraries. A 2017 “9Wants to Know” undercover news investigation found an increase in 911 calls for drug overdoses as well as video footage of patrons selling meth and injecting heroin on the premises of the central branch. The piece also reported an increase in police calls for fights and sexual assaults. Given that data, it’s fair to wonder whether Denver Public Library’s efforts to help those experiencing homelessness and mental illness are instead attracting more troublemakers to these public institutions—and driving away other patrons?

It’s impossible to know exactly how many of the perpetrators of those crimes came to the library in search of social services. Public libraries have long been natural places for the indigent and transient to go in search of shelter and resources—and most other libraries don’t have staff equipped to deal with them. From Hardy’s perspective, homelessness and mental illness are critical issues in Denver, whether she’s at the library or not. And, she adds, people ignoring the problem won’t make it go away. “I feel like this is an opportunity to educate the public on social issues and the needs that we have,” Hardy says. “If someone had a safer place to be, they’d be there.”