Almost anyone who’s visited San Diego’s downtown library has encountered homeless visitors.

That includes Active Voice columnist Christie Ritter, who wrote this week that she won’t be visiting the new Central Library often due in part to an uncomfortable encounter with a screaming woman.

Our readers responded passionately. Some demanded more rules for library visitors; others chided Ritter for her reaction.

What are the rules anyway?

The library has a code of conduct and some of its rules seem especially directed at homeless visitors, though they apply to everyone.

For example, you can’t sleep in the library or bring in large bags or shopping carts. Sleeping bags, blankets and bed rolls aren’t allowed either.

Other library laws – my term, not library officials’ – simply bar disruptive behavior or harassment of visitors. You can check out the full code of conduct here.

Bruce Johnson, deputy director overseeing the city’s branch libraries, said the punishment librarians mete out in response to bad behavior largely depends on what happened, and who was aware of it.

For example, if a group of teenagers is simply laughing loudly, they might simply be given a warning and asked to quiet down.

If the behavior continues, Johnson said, unruly visitors may be booted from the library and even asked to stay away for a time.

“We do have a system in place to put some meat into the enforcement of (library rules),” Johnson said. “Often what (we’ll say) is, ‘You’ve broken the code here and you’re not going to be able to visit us for a while.”

If something more serious happens – such as fighting or harassment – the librarians may consult the facility’s security guards or even the police.

In some cases, visitors who behave badly just get a one-day suspension but librarians can also decide to keep someone from visiting for months, or even bar them indefinitely. (Branch managers or deputy library directors like Johnson often weigh in or make the call on longer-term punishments.)

Regardless of what happened, librarians write an incident report whenever someone is asked to leave for at least a day so they can track so-called problem patrons. If the troublemaker disagrees, he or she can pursue an appeal. High-level library officials ultimately decide whether to amend the previous decision.

But the city’s librarians are hoping a social worker recently assigned to the Central Library will help lessen the need for such suspensions.

Rick Braatz, who works for the nonprofit Mental Health Systems, now leads the library’s New Chapter Support Center, which assists library visitors who are homeless or trying to cope with a mental disorder.

Still, Johnson said, the library needs visitors’ help too.

Rather than simply staring or trying to correct an unruly visitor, let a librarian or security guard know, he said. “We do always encourage folks to let staff know if they see anything they’re a little unsure about.”

Lisa Halverstadt

Lisa is a senior investigative reporter who digs into some of San Diego's biggest challenges including homelessness, city real estate debacles, the region's...

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