Concerns about suicide attempts and drug overdoses at San Diego’s downtown central library have prompted city officials to recommend additional security guards and more comprehensive training.
A new plan unveiled by city officials would give the downtown library two more security guards, one to help prevent suicide attempts from the top floor and one to deal with drug use in bathrooms, stairwells and other concealed places.
All city guards would also complete new training protocols focused an administering the drug naloxone to anyone experiencing an opioid overdose.
Since guards began using naloxone in November 2021, library officials said 17 people at the downtown library experiencing overdoses have had their lives potentially saved when they were given the drug.
Library officials say there have been 36 overdose incidents since July 2019, but they didn’t say how many of those were fatal. There have been 263 incidents of illegal drug use or possession during that time, officials said.
Officials did not provide statistics on suicide attempts, but a homeless person died by suicide after jumping from an upper floor of the nine-story library in August 2019.
City officials attribute the problems to the growing number of homeless people in recent years who use the central library, which opened in 2013.
“We’ve had an increasing number of incidents with overdoses, encampments around the building, fights and thefts,” city head librarian Misty Jones told the City Council’s budget committee last week. “There is a lot of mental illness and substance abuse and the issues that come along with that.”
The budget committee approved a $4 million increase in the city’s five-year contract with its private security contractor during the Dec. 7 meeting, from $24 million to $28 million.
But city officials said another request for even more money is coming soon, primarily because problems at the central library have worsened since officials began negotiating an amended security deal.
There is a mental health caseworker assigned to the downtown library for 15 hours a week.
Council President Sean Elo-Rivera suggested a better approach to preventing suicides might be hiring more mental health counselors, instead of hiring more security guards and training them to do things that are likely outside their skill set.
Jones said people who unsuccessfully attempt suicide at the library get sent for mental health counseling after security guards take the key first step of saving their life.
“The first step is that you have to interrupt the attempt, and that is what security guards are there to do,” she said.
Elo-Rivera said he also initially doubted the plan to train security guards to use naloxone, which is often sold under the brand name Narcan, until he saw the data Jones presented.
“In an ideal situation, we wouldn’t feel like we need to put Narcan in our library security guards’ hands in order to save lives, but the data you showed is powerful,” he said.
Elo-Rivera said paying more for security guards is the humane thing to do, contending officials should be sympathetic toward homeless patrons who look to the library for shelter and safety during the day when overnight shelters are closed.
“I promise you we won’t have more professionalism and safety by finding the absolute cheapest security possible,” he said.
In September, the downtown library also added a part-time social worker — a San Diego State student working on her master’s degree in social work.
Her addition was intended to help homeless patrons and others with housing services, substance use treatment, food insecurity and human trafficking.
The downtown library also has a veterans resource center staffed by People Assisting the Homeless and an outreach worker from the National Alliance on Mental Illness.
The goal is avoiding what had often been the approach in the past — simply escorting a homeless person off the library grounds and asking them to never come back.
Other factors increasing the city’s private security contract are the need to place at least one new guard at each new homeless shelter, which the city continues to steadily open, and recent inflation pushing the city’s calculation of its living wage up more than 8.28 percent in just one year — to $17.91 an hour.
All city contractors must pay their workers at least that wage.
The amendments are expected to get final approval from the full council in January.
In addition to library branches, security guards patrol city skateparks, cemeteries, beaches, parks and some city buildings, including City Hall.
This story originally appeared in San Diego Union-Tribune.
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