By Gina McGalliard
The Mission Valley Library is a public resource available to all people — including the homeless. But because of the unique needs of the homeless population, occasional friction has flared between the library’s staff, homeless patrons and other regular visitors.
Homeless people utilize the library for a variety of purposes, including using the restrooms and the public computers to look for employment or to keep in touch with family and friends. Also, the library is one of the few public spaces where the homeless feel welcome, officials say.
“We are inclusive of everybody who comes into the library,” said Marion Hubbard, San Diego Library’s senior public information officer who pointed out that it is not always obvious by someone’s appearance if they are homeless.
“We serve all user groups, and we try to make it a safe and welcoming environment for everybody who comes to visit, regardless of their status of whether they’re homeless or if they have a home.”
Although it is not uncommon for the homeless to frequent libraries, Hubbard said, the Mission Valley branch sees more than its share of homeless patrons because of its proximity to a nearby trolley station as well as the San Diego River bed and surrounding canyons, where many of them have set up makeshift camps.
Earlier this year, a concern was raised because some homeless patrons wanted to bring their shopping carts into the library, fearing that their belongings would be stolen if they left them unattended outside. Library officials objected because leaving carts inside the library would take up too much space and cause a potential fire hazard.
In a memo dated July 16, deputy city attorney Sharon Li stated that the library’s restriction against bringing shopping carts inside the building was reasonable, and that the current rules of conduct did not need to be amended.
Also, homeless patrons are not allowed to sleep on the sidewalks around the building. However, the library staff will work with homeless patrons regarding leaving their carts in a safe location outside the library.
San Diego police officer Adam McElroy, who does community relations for the Eastern Division, said he has received an occasional phone call from the Mission Valley Library staff regarding a homeless person who has behaved inappropriately.
“The bulk of the complaints that I get from people, 80 percent or so, are complaining about homeless people,” he said, also adding that homelessness is a top concern in the Mission Valley community. “It’s a difficult situation for the police. We’re not really well-geared for getting rid of homelessness. It’s more of a socio-economic kind of issue.
“We can go out there and address criminal behavior, but in general the kind of criminal behavior that we see them doing is low-level stuff that we would issue tickets on, where the goal of the community calling us would be to basically have them removed or arrested and taken away,” McElroy said.
If a homeless person does receive a ticket for a violation and gets sent to jail, they are usually out in a couple days, creating what McElroy calls a “rotating door.”
McElroy said he doesn’t see the problem of homelessness ever going away, as many homeless people decline mental health and addiction services. He estimated the city’s transient population to be around 7,000, which he believes marks an increase from years past. The San Diego Regional Task Force on the Homeless counted 8,742 homeless people in 2015 across the sprawling county, an increase of 2.8 percent over the 2014 count.
Although city police are fairly limited in their power to prevent the homeless from frequenting certain areas, there are rare cases where authorities can order a homeless individual to stay away.
If “you get a regular who is a constant problem, we are able to file basically a restraining order or a stay-away order if you’ve got a chronic problem person,” said McElroy, who is aware of one case where a homeless person was banned from the library.
As opposed to what some may think, Hubbard said that homeless patrons are often well-behaved because they want to retain their privilege of coming to the library.
“We try to separate it out not by the status of their homelessness, but rather by their behavior. … We have a zero-tolerance policy for violations of our rules of conduct,” Hubbard said. “Many people come in who are homeless who behave fine and are very accepting of the rules … people think that just because someone is homeless that they have behavior [problems] and that’s not necessarily the case.”