Kate Coleman worked with nearly 500 homeless people at Minneapolis Central Library last year. But whenever one homeless person asks if she's ever met another homeless person like him or her, her answer is always "no."
"Every single person that I encounter is different," she said.
Coleman works full time at the downtown library as part of a yearslong effort by the Hennepin County Library system to better help the homeless connect with tools and resources in the area.
Library staff often receive requests from patrons about homeless services that are beyond a librarian's knowledge, said Lois Langer Thompson, director of the library system.
"This is a place where people come looking for answers," Thompson said.
Coleman's position allows the library to be more than just a basic reference point for help. She said the full-time role fits in with the library's overall mission of connecting all parts of the community with help and information.
Libraries in Denver, San Francisco and Seattle offer similar services, she said.
Coleman works for St. Stephen's Human Services, a nonprofit whose mission is to end homelessness. Her position is funded by Hennepin County's human services and public health department and the Downtown Council. She began working as the full-time library outreach coordinator at the end of 2015.
For many, the library serves as a welcoming and comfortable place to begin looking for help, Coleman said.
"I think the library allows people to feel human and to just feel like they can comfortably be themselves when they're here," she said.
Coleman hosts weekly walk-in hours that are posted and announced throughout the library. The majority of the patrons she works with ask for help with housing and employment, Coleman said. Others need help getting access to mental health services.
"Those resources are always changing," she said. "So it's my job to always keep up with what's available and stay connected with those other community service providers."
Being at the library 40 hours a week gives her a better opportunity to follow up with the people she works with, she said.
Coleman asks them about income, disability diagnoses and the length of time they've been homeless to help connect them with the services that best fit their needs.
In 2015, there were more than 3,000 homeless people living in Hennepin County.
People in need often turn to libraries because they're staples in communities and can offer a sense of security and safety, said Ali Turner, system services division manager for the library system.
She said having Coleman present can also make homeless patrons more comfortable using other resources at the library.
"There isn't a stigma attached to visiting [the library]," she said.
Haley Hansen is a University of Minnesota student on assignment for the Star Tribune.