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Last Tuesday afternoon, librarians and patrons were stunned by a suicide inside in the bustling Central Library downtown.
First responders rushed in to try save the 49-year-old man, but he was soon pronounced dead as library staff and security hurried to close the library and clear patrons from the building.
In the days since, city library spokeswoman Jennifer McBride said employees from the city’s branch libraries have covered shifts at the Central Library to allow staffers who witnessed the traumatic incident to take time off. The city has also brought in counselors and chaplains to speak with Central Library staffers. Homeless outreach workers have offered support to homeless San Diegans who witnessed the incident too.
Police say there have been three suicide attempts at the Central Library since mid-May.
Those incidents have driven home the extent to which East Village – and the Central Library in particular – is caught at the center of the region’s mental health and homelessness crises.
Dozens of homeless San Diegans pack the expansive air-conditioned space daily, as others do in many other big-city libraries nationwide.
But as the city has grappled with an uptick in homeless San Diegans who are struggling with mental illnesses and addiction in East Village, Central Library employees have increasingly been forced to take on a role that goes beyond books.
Union leaders who represent library employees report that Central Library staffers have endured assaults, confrontations with patrons using drugs in library bathrooms and a slew of other tense encounters.
“The employees are thrust into roles as EMTs and HAZMAT handlers and law enforcement, dealing with prostitution and drug use – way beyond the skills and specialties of the positions they hold,” said Mike Zucchet of the Municipal Employees Association, the union for the city’s white-collar workers.
Indeed, in 2017, Central Library staffer Bob Surratt, other employees and patrons were honored by the Red Cross for their efforts to prevent a suicide there.
“Library staff and patrons reacted quickly and without hesitation to help each other and to stop the woman from jumping from the building, even resorting to hanging onto her legs and pulling her back over the railing to save her life,” the American Red Cross of San Diego/Imperial Counties wrote in a press release about the award.
In crisis or know someone who may be suicidal? Call San Diego County’s free 24-hour Access & Crisis Line at 888-724-7240 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255). You can learn about local resources here.
In response to those troubling incidents, city officials have ramped up mental-health first aid and safety training for library employees as well as services and outreach for homeless San Diegans and people with mental illnesses.
This May, the City Council approved bolstered security contracts for the downtown library and other city facilities, leading to more regular patrols and an increased security presence at the Central Library.
In the weeks since the City Council vote and the start of the city’s new fiscal year, Allstate Security Services has deployed eight specially trained guards at the Central Library each day, per its new contract with the city. The contract requires that guards walk library floors every half hour, making security more visible.
Just before noon Wednesday, I watched an Allstate Security guard quickly appear when a man began loudly making racial slurs in front of a third-floor circulation desk. When the man refused to quiet down, the guard handcuffed him and another guard responded to help escort the man out.
A handful of downtown residents and library patrons told Voice of San Diego they have noticed and appreciated an increased sense of security at the Central Library in recent weeks. A few others said they had never felt uncomfortable at the library.
East Village Residents Group president Kathleen Hallahan said she helped convene an April meeting of city and county officials to discuss security and mental health issues at the library following wave of concerns from residents. She commended city and county officials for improvements in the months since that meeting.
“It seems different and it seems safer for everyone,” Hallahan said.
Peter Vagnino, who is homeless and visits the library multiple times a week, said he has been thankful for the library’s increased security, especially due to the recent spate of mass shootings in public places.
Vagnino and others said library visitors must remain vigilant to avoid having their belongings stolen, but Vagnino said he has noticed that patrons who boldly act out are usually swiftly confronted by security.
“Security is usually pretty quick to put a stop to it,” Vagnino said.
Outreach workers are also increasingly trying to engage with patrons who are facing mental health crises.
National Alliance on Mental Illness San Diego outreach workers circulate throughout the library six hours a day on weekdays. One worker is also usually stationed at the library’s mental health services office on the third floor, a space city officials say was inspired by a similar program at the San Francisco Public Library.
Katie Devlin and Kara Heretakis, both National Alliance on Mental Illness workers assigned to the library, said they try to talk to 40 library visitors each day and to seek out those who may be behaving erratically or loudly. Devlin and Heretakis said library staff have gotten to know they can loop in the outreach workers when issues come up. They said library patrons have started approaching to point out others who may need help.
“We’re here to serve anyone who has a serious mental illness who is also experiencing homelessness,” Heretakis said.
For a time, the group was one of three nonprofits conducting outreach at the library during more limited hours.
The National Alliance on Mental Illness’ increased presence at the library followed a directive from the county as part of the organization’s county-contracted work at its nearby center for homeless San Diegans with mental illnesses.
Family Health Centers of San Diego also recently began doing homeless outreach at the library a few days a week. Family Health Centers also runs a weekly Healthcare for the Homeless outreach program at the library from 10 a.m. to noon on Wednesdays.
“The library just seems to be a good place to engage people,” said Bob Lewis, Family Health Center’s director of special populations.
Nonprofits Think Dignity, Roadmap to Recovery and 2-1-1 San Diego have been among many organizations to partner with the Central Library on a March mental health fair and other more recent initiatives to serve homeless San Diegans who regularly visit the library.
Yet last week’s suicide was a reminder of the safety challenges that remain.
In an email to VOSD, McBride said that the July 30 incident and others have prompted library managers to contact the city’s facilities division to discuss how to address vulnerable areas in the library.
“They’re exploring ways to make them safer and less available for people who may be trying to harm themselves,” McBride wrote.