Residents worry new library will be homeless haven

Jul 29, 2010


Brandon Pimente, 26, signs a support beam that will be used in the new San Diego Public Library complex. (Eric Burse/

As city leaders agreed to break ground on downtown’s San Diego Central Library, residents of surrounding neighborhoods worry the $185 million, state-of-the-art structure will become a safe haven for the area’s homeless.

The new home of the central library sits on the corner of J Street and Park Boulevard, in the heart of the East Village, which is known to residents as a hot spot for the city’s homeless despite recent relocation attempts.

Residents and those who oppose the new library say the city is doing nothing but building a multimillion-dollar homeless shelter, with no intention of penalizing those who seek refuge from the city’s streets.

“East Village is the largest design area downtown, and there are a lot of homeless,” San Diego Realtor Mark Mills said. “But the area around 10th Street, that’s where residents do run into problems, and the library, right next to that, is going up in a not so desirable part of town.”

But city officials are skeptical of the influence East Village’s homeless will have on the new library, saying the building’s security guards will prove sufficient for the protection and safety of its patrons.

“It’s in its own contained area, and homeless people aren’t usually a factor,” said Rachel Laing, a spokeswoman for the mayor’s office. “I honestly don’t think [the library] is going to have an impact. As long as they’re not causing any problems, there’s no reason to kick them out of a public area.”

Although East Village is the target of a massive redevelopment project spearheaded by the city, in 2008 a staggering 76 percent of the city’s homeless population was located in the area, according to the city’s Regional Task Force on the Homeless. This creates the highest concentration of homeless in emergency shelters and homeless programs in San Diego.

“It’s mainly an eyesore. No one wants to walk out of their condo and see homeless people,” Mills said. “It’s not their character that people complain about, it’s just that they don’t want their friends to come over and have to step over the homeless person sleeping on the street.”

This year also shows an approximate 8 percent jump in the city’s homeless population that is more than the 8,500 individuals, according to a Task Force report. City officials, however, see the influx in the homeless population as an unrelated issue to the library’s construction.

“You have some homeless individuals, but it’s not a problem,” Laing said. “It in no way affects the citizen’s ability to use the library.”

The central library’s construction comes amid a whirlwind of development projects in East Village, implemented by the Centre City Development Corp., a nonprofit company created by the city to breathe new life into San Diego neighborhoods once plagued by crime and deterioration.

Since the CCDC’s infiltration of East Village, hundreds of development projects have been completed. Future plans include hotels, parks and the possibility of a new stadium for the San Diego Chargers, the city’s NFL franchise.

But with the city’s redevelopment crusade, the area’s homeless population has been threatened with relocation and uncertainty.

In order to help with the displacement of the area’s homeless, San Diego introduced the East Village Redevelopment Homeless Advisory Committee, a group responsible for assessing the physical impact of the area’s development projects. In April, the committee took the first steps to establish a permanent shelter for the city’s homeless.

“Homeless people are citizens just like anyone else, but no one’s allowed to sleep in the library, no one’s allowed to set up camp,” Laing said. “The thing that is going to have the most impact is the new homeless facility that the city is planning.”

The proposed project solution is to renovate the historic World Trade Center on Sixth Avenue to house drug and alcohol treatment programs, mental health services, job counseling services, and a medical clinic. The center, approximately a block away from the site of the new library, would provide a prototype for homeless shelters that advocates say is needed in surrounding neighborhoods.

But some feel the city’s plan to restore the structure, built in 1928, goes against a community push to scatter homeless services throughout the city. Instead, these programs would be staying in the city’s 2nd District, where the library will be located.

“This city has thrown this at the CCDC and said ‘this is your problem,’ ” said Herb Johnson, president and CEO of San Diego Rescue Mission. “So [the CCDC] has been setting up shop in the 2nd District, and now they don’t know how to get them out.”