Features News

The Impact of Homelessness In and Around the San Diego Central Library

San Diego Central Library is located at 330 Park Blvd. in downtown San Diego. Photo courtesy of Becky Rookard.

In the heart of downtown San Diego lies the San Diego Central Library. This building has nine stories and features a career center, homeless mental health services, veteran resources and more. The number of unsheltered people for Feb. 2023 is 1837, according to the Downtown San Diego Partnership

Although camping is prohibited on the streets of public government buildings in San Diego, tents can be seen on the surrounding streets of the library. From the time the library opens at 11:30 a.m. and closes at 8 p.m., many local people experiencing homelessness spend time at the library. 

A library security officer who has worked at the SD Central Library for close to five years said,  “75 to 80% of our library patrons look homeless.” He requested to remain anonymous due to safety concerns. The Point agreed to not name the security officer and verified his employment at the SD Central Library as well as the information given to the reporter. 

Gedalyahu Ben-Shimeon, a homeless outreach worker and case manager who works at the homeless and mental health office at the SD Central Library said, “The library is a safe place to be. Those experiencing homelessness utilize it more because it has the most basic assets, they can be safe, quiet, inside, on a computer, and able to contact people and manage their lives.”

The entrance and exits of the library, as well as all floors open to the public, are monitored by security personnel during business hours. At the entrance of each floor, there are rules of conduct posted as well as a notice to library users that says all books, purses, briefcases, packages parcels, etc. are subject to inspection upon leaving the library.

“The rules are posted for all patrons to see, however, it feels like the rules target the homeless,” said the security officer. “At the same time, everyone needs to enjoy the library without it feeling like a homeless shelter. This is a place [where] families and everyone should be able to learn, have fun, and feel safe.” 

Although there is a large homeless population who spend time inside and sleep on the streets surrounding the library, the security officer said most of the time this does not have an impact on other library patrons. 

Nasro Mohamed, a San Diego native who comes to the SD Central Library to study, said that she has not been bothered by the homeless population he encounters in the library. 

“I did encounter homeless people in the library as they were using the bathroom,” Mohamed said. “However, I didn’t feel uncomfortable due to their circumstances. I definitely feel like the population of the homeless is something that people are desensitized to especially as it relates to downtown San Diego.”

Although oftentimes there are no problems, Ben-Shimeon explained there have been certain instances where homeless library patrons have become violent and unsafe towards security personnel or other library patrons.

On Feb. 17 around 10:30 a.m., library security reported a fire among a line of tents on Park Boulevard, about 300 feet away from the library. The San Diego Police Department was notified and fire authorities put out the fire shortly after.

Smoke rising into the air due to a fire amongst a line of tents on Park Blvd. Two library security officers are seen responding to the incident. Photo taken by the anonymous security officer.

The Point worked to verify this incident through a Google search, as well as a review of the San Diego Police Department and San Diego Fire Department’s recent social media posts. No reports of the incident could be found; however, meta-data from the photo sent by the security officer verified the photo was taken at the same time, place and location as the fire incident the security officer described. 

“These people [those experiencing homelessness] are endangering the surrounding community because they are unhappy with their lives, it sometimes feels like they do not even want help,” the security officer said. “They’d rather be miserable than give into the system.”

The SD Central Library is surrounded by large apartment buildings and local businesses.

“I see people [living in the apartment buildings] walk past the tents like it’s normal, society has adjusted to so many people living on the streets,” the security officer said. 

The Mayor of San Diego, Todd Gloria, has responded to the issue of homelessness in San Diego. In Gloria’s 2023 State of The City Address, the mayor explained the recent work to expand shelter capacities in San Diego, opening about 700 new beds available to those experiencing homelessness throughout the city. 

“The Mayor has come in multiple times but it sometimes feels more political than him actually caring about San Diego,” the security officer said.

Informative flyers and office hours are posted outside Homelessness and Mental Health Outreach office in the SD Central Library. Photo Courtesy of Becky Rookard.

The Office of Homeless and Mental Health Outreach

On the SD Central Library’s third floor, there is an office for homeless and mental health outreach. The office is open Mon through Fri from 11:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. At this office, The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) offers services including housing assistance and resources, mental health referrals and substance abuse addiction counseling. 

Free snacks and water are located outside this office every day provided by the Lucky Duck Foundation, an organization that leads many collaborative programs to alleviate the suffering of the homeless population in San Diego. Information about NAMI’s resources and shower information is also posted outside this office for library patrons to see.

“Anywhere from seven to twelve people a day on average come to seek help at this office; housing, and mental health support are the top two reasons people come here,” said Ben-Shimeon. “They start their housing process here, we give resource options for both subsidized and unsubsidized housing.”

According to the San Diego County Office of Education, there were more than 1,100 drug overdose deaths in 2021. Because of the opioid drug epidemic, library security personnel are required to have CPR certifications as well as overdose treatment training with Narcan ready to administer.

“I have seen no improvement towards ending the opioid epidemic, many of the library patrons experiencing homelessness have heavy drug problems,” the security officer said. “It is our job to protect the library patrons and we have had to deal with assault of other patrons and security, overdoses and even people ending their own lives.”

Although the office holds numerous resources for those experiencing homelessness, Ben-Shimeon said it often goes unnoticed and unused. 

“I would say only two out of 10 homeless library patrons take advantage of the resources offered here,” said the security officer. 

The Cold and Uncared For (CAUF) Society aims to reduce suffering related to homelessness. In an article titled “Why The Homeless Refuse Help,”  The CAUF Society said the main reasons homeless people refuse to get help are because shelters can be dangerous, and there are struggles with substance abuse, mental health and more. 

“It’s an exception when someone comes in here and takes advantage of our assets. However, we have had several people find long-term housing despite their income, ” Ben-Shimeon said.

NAMI homeless outreach workers often report local incidents regarding homeless people. 

“We are here to help people seeking help in the office as well as de-escalate situations nearby and at other San Diego public libraries,” Ben-Shimeon said. 

The office for homelessness and mental health outreach is only one of the human health services located at the SD Central Library. There are also many resources for youth, veterans and more mental health services. The complete list of services and resources can be found on the SD Central Library website. 

Written By: Becky Rookard