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What happened to all the homeless in Escondido’s Grape Day Park?

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.

Housing galore coming to downtown Escondido, with hope shoppers will follow

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.

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A changing city: Escondido seeing a boom in construction

The effects of a strong economy can be seen and felt in Escondido, where the availability of financing has led to no less than three dozen housing, commercial and city projects that over the course of the next few years will change the appearance and vitality of the city.

Some projects are being built now. Others have been approved and will begin building shortly. Others, including the controversial Safari Highland Ranch project, are awaiting approval and permits.

“Here at city hall we’re very excited about all the projects going on,” said City Manager Jeff Epp. “We try to do everything we can to unleash the potential for exciting things in our community.”

Escondido attorney Ken Lounsbery, who served as city manager 40 years ago, said the flurry of activity is an indicator that lenders are confident in the current economy and the future of the city.

All the housing being built and proposed in Escondido is needed, he said. “If we’re talking market absorption, if the question is, are we building more than the market can handle, I don’t think that’s the case,” he said.

Some of the larger projects in the city:

Construction will begin soon on a condominium complex at the western edge of downtown where the old, blighted police headquarters building was recently torn down. The Escondido Gateway project will consist of 126 condominium of various sizes that will be connected to the transportation center across the street.

A 106-unit, six-story condominium building is being planned just south of the California Center for the Performing Arts in what is now City Parking Lot No. 1. A deal to sell the property to Touchstone Communities is still being negotiated.

In the northwest part of the city, the 109 acres of land where the long-shuttered Escondido Country Club and golf course sits was recently approved for 380 houses. Whether they will be built will depend on the outcome of a lawsuit that has been filed by some who live near the abandoned golf course as well as a multitude of other factors.

In the southwest part of town near Felicita County Park, a 65-home upscale development known as Oak Creek was approved more than two years ago but is waiting to begin construction until new sewer lines are laid in the area.

Meanwhile, negotiations between Palomar Health and developers to turn the old Palomar Medical Center on the eastern edge of downtown into a mixed-use housing/commercial area are said to be in advanced stages. Such a project could include several hundred condominium units and is viewed as crucial to the revitalization of the area.

And on the eastern edge of the city in the San Pasqual Valley, a 550-luxury home development called Safari Highlands Ranch will be going to the City Council for approval later this year. The city will annex the land into the municipality if approved. It is the largest housing project to be considered by the city council in decades. Neighbors who live to the west of the property, as well as a few who live to the north, are fighting the plans submitted by Concordia Homes.

The city is also eyeing some big projects.

In the center of Escondido, at the southeast corner of the intersection of Washington and Ash streets, the city is expected to begin building by this summer a desalination recycled water plant. The facility is needed to bring water to farmers that can be used to irrigate crops in the eastern and northern parts of the city at a greatly reduced cost.

Farther east at Lake Wohlford, the city hopes to begin construction within a year of a new dam that will replace the one that now holds back the lake. A replacement dam is needed because tests show the top part of the existing one might not withstand a large earthquake and therefore the lake’s water level has been reduced significantly for safety reasons. Funding has yet to be fully acquired for the project.

Commercial building is going strong as well.

A large commercial center that will include restaurants and a big car wash is being built on the land where the Wagon Wheel Restaurant and Palm Tree Lodge were located along Centre City Parkway south of Mission Avenue.

On the western side of town, a 212,000-square-foot warehouse/distribution center is being built along Harmony Grove Road with an expected August completion date.

At the southwest corner of Broadway where state Route 78’s four-lane highway begins, a grocery store and drive-thru Starbucks is under construction.

Not far from downtown, just east of Interstate 15 on La Terraza Boulevard, a long-needed business-class Marriott hotel is being built. And over by Palomar Medical Center, a 57,000-square-foot, 52-bed Rehabilitation Institute structure is coming soon.

Numerous other projects are underway all over the city including housing in the Reidy Creek area and a 95-unit condominium project to be called The Ivy on Second Avenue near Ivy Street where a vacant surgery center building is being razed.