Over the past two months, Grape Day Park in the center of Escondido has become a family-friendly place again.
The homeless population, which for years filled the city’s most visible park all day, has been drastically reduced. Where once there were dozens, now there are just a handful.
It’s not an accident. The city has taken an aggressive approach not just with the homeless in Grape Day Park, but throughout the city — and is being praised by homeless advocates in the process.
“The city is proactively working to help our neighbors who are experiencing homelessness in a way I’ve never seen before, in positive ways,” said Greg Anglea, the chief executive officer of Interfaith Community Services, which saw more than 10,000 people in need come to their offices last year.
“I’ve seen an increased commitment to putting resources toward addressing homelessness in the past year. Bill Wolfe’s role has been a big part of that.”
Bill Wolfe, a long-time criminal defense lawyer who became a deputy city manager last September, has the option of parking his car in the executive parking lot near City Hall. Instead, he parks his car each morning in a parking lot kitty-corner to the municipal facility and walks through Grape Day Park, every morning and every night.
He talks to anybody he runs across — the homeless, children at the playground, dog walkers, rangers.
“When I started here in September, you could walk out there and there were 36 to 40 (homeless people) hanging out in the park,” Wolfe said. “There would be 15 in the horseshoe pit alone.”
Now that number is down to usually just a handful and residents who were once afraid, or uncomfortable coming to Grape Day Park, are returning.
“The playground is being used,” Wolfe said. “People are walking their dogs. Schools are coming over here and playing. The Children’s Museum brought 40 little kids this morning and walked them right through the middle of the park.
“You know why? Because they feel like they can because they feel safe.”
Shortly after Wolfe came to the city, he was asked by his friend, City Manger Jeff Epp, to tackle the homeless situation.
Wolfe formed a Quality of Life Group comprised of representatives of the police department’s Community Oriented Policing Team, public works, parks department, the city attorney’s office, code enforcement and neighborhood services.
One of the first priorities was Grape Day Park.
Wolfe decided to change the way the park rangers acted at Grape Day. Instead of smiling and pointing people toward the restrooms, they are now focused on enforcing all the various municipal codes that are already on the books.
It is not against the law for someone to hang out in the park all day, but they can’t bring their bicycles in, or set up large tarps creating temporary encampments, then wander off. They can’t smoke in the park or sell or use drugs, or drink, or do anything else that is illegal.
If the rangers, armed only with pepper spray and a citation book, see any violation, they write the offender a ticket and that person is banned from the park for 72 hours.
“I’m not looking for trouble,” said recently hired Park Ranger Sam Olea. “I’m just looking for anybody that isn’t following the municipal code. Our priorities are the families here. We want to make sure they feel safe. We want families to come here and enjoy the park.”
The police also have the rangers’ backs and will respond quickly if there is any problem. The result is the message has gotten out in the homeless community that it’s just too much of a hassle to be in the park.
“We didn’t change any rules, we’re just enforcing ones already in place,” Wolfe said.
“It’s a big-time change,” said 55-year-old Moe Thompson, a regular homeless man at the park who Wolfe chatted with one sunny April afternoon.
“I think it’s safer and looks better,” Thompson said.
Wolfe concedes the efforts lead in part to what he called a game of whack-a-mole. “You chase them out of the park and they go somewhere else. Then we’ll go there.”
But the bigger goal of Wolfe and his homeless group is what has won the praises of Interfaith Services and other homeless advocacy groups in the city and North County.
Wolfe said his years representing criminal defendants taught him to concentrate on the individual and not on the crimes they commit. He said that’s helped him wrestle with the problem.
He said his first goal is to better the lives of the homeless.
“If they want help, I’m going to get them help,” Wolfe said. “I don’t want to make their life worse. I want to make their life better.”
He said in the past six months there have been numerous instances of the city working with homeless people to get them off the streets and, in some cases, to get them connected to family in other parts of the country.
If they will accept the help, they are directed to a bed and a shelter, given a shower and new clothes and food and then put on a bus with a free ticket to head toward family that has been contacted and wants to reconnect.
He said police are taking an interest in each person, treating them like human beings, and that connection is working well.
“One thing I’ve realized is you take each person where they are,” Wolfe said. “These are each individuals. You can’t lump this as a singular solution. Each is a human being and each has a tragic story.”
Interfaith’s Anglea said it’s been obvious recently that the city is personalizing how they connect with “Escondido neighbors who are on the streets. They are identifying what are the best options to help those individuals.”
Wolfe also said he and his group have been meeting with churches and charitable groups that feed the homeless.
“We’re not El Cajon,” Wolfe said. “We’re not banning serving food in the parks. But we’re meeting with churches and telling them why bringing food to (the homeless) is not helping.
“You’ve trained these people to just lay in the park and wait for their next meal, to wait for their next handout. If you instead make them get up and walk to Interfaith to get that handout, they don’t get just a handout, they get exposed to services. And that makes a difference.”
The homeless group has also formed a three-man public works team that every morning will head into the city where someone has reported a homeless encampment.
“Their job is to go out every morning to the hot spots and make sure no encampments are set up,” Wolfe said. “Its been very successful. You’re only allowed to camp in Escondido in a campground. When you set up against a building or in a park or in a ditch, you’re camping somewhere where you’re not supposed to be.”
A majority of the homeless usually sleep in creek beds or other unpopulated areas where they hope not to be bothered by the city or by others.
Of course, homelessness is not going to go away. Some who live on the streets don’t want help and say they prefer the transient life.
Interfaith’s Anglea says he’s never met a homeless person who truly wants to be homeless, but many do reject offers of help.
Others are mentally ill and/or addicted to alcohol or drugs and refuse overtures by the city to better their plight.
Downtown Escondido in the coming years will become home to thousands of residents who will live in new apartments and condominiums, some rising four, five, even six stories into the air.