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Downtown Encinitas issues take center stage

Bobby Virk, owner of the 7-Eleven on D Street, has seen it all in the alleyway behind his business, from drug sales to vandalism to people urinating.

In front of his store, Virk frequently grapples with vagrants panhandling and littering.

“Unfortunately, it becomes a real problem for the business owners to keep their areas clear, clean and inviting,” Virk said this week. “We don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

A spike in concerns from Encinitas residents and businesses led the Encinitas City Council last week to convene a subcommittee to address homelessness, vagrancy, drug use, long-term parking on public streets and other downtown issues.

Virk welcomed the new subcommittee, saying the city over the years has focused on bar-related complaints in the area, but other downtown issues were sometimes neglected.

“Before, I don’t think the city’s eye was on these other problems,” Virk said. “I don’t think they were taking the vagrancy issue seriously. I think that’s changed; it’s a welcome change.”

For his part, Virk recommended that the Sheriff’s Department reinstate a coastal enforcement unit that disbanded a few years ago. The beat patrol, Virk said, knew the ins and outs of the area and often squashed issues before they got out of hand.

Besides the council subcommittee, Encinitas 101 Main Street Association and businesses are stepping up to the plate. Virk, for instance, is part of the Alley Activation Project, a new campaign to revitalize downtown alleyways that attract illegal activity.

“It includes cleaning, painting, lighting, landscaping and even adding murals to make the alleys more attractive,” said Thora Guthrie, executive director of Encinitas 101 Main Street, which is behind the program.

The goal is to draw more foot traffic through downtown alleys to drive out illegal activity, an approach that’s worked in other cities, Guthrie stated. Encinitas 101 Main Street recently received two grants totaling $15,000 for the program, and it’s partnering with EDCO and SDG&E to aid with beautification.

“More businesses are operating out of the alleys, and that’s already made the problem better,” she said. “We want to take it a step further with the program.”

Echoing others interviewed for this article, Guthrie said there’s no simple solution for homelessness issues. As a first step, she’s exploring bringing programs like ElderHelp to Encinitas.

ElderHelp connects those in need of a place to live with seniors who require assistance to stay in their homes. It facilitates matches with a comprehensive process that includes intake, assessment, registration and screening of home seekers and providers.

Councilmembers Lisa Shaffer and Tony Kranz several weeks ago met informally with a cross-section of residents and business owners to talk about downtown issues, particularly where problems seem the worst: Second Street, Third Street and Fourth Street. The conversation sparked the creation of the subcommittee.

One of residents’ chief concerns: People living out of their cars and campers, with many parked in downtown Encinitas in zones with two-hour limits. To that end, the council last week expressed interest in members of the Sheriff’s Senior Volunteer Patrol writing tickets to enforce the two-hour limit.

Shaffer this week said in an email the Sheriff’s Department isn’t supportive of that approach, so the subcommittee is looking at other alternatives, although she declined to go into more detail at this time.

The subcommittee, made up of Shaffer and Deputy Mayor Catherine Blakespear, is slated to issue an update on its progress at the July 15 council meeting. Future subcommittee meetings will examine the possibility of a new park ranger to patrol downtown, an extra Alcohol Beverage Control person, bringing back the Sheriff’s coastal enforcement team and other potential solutions.

Sheriff’s Capt. Theresa Adams-Hydar did not respond to a request for comment on this article.

Kranz this week said the city has made strides in addressing residents’ concerns over downtown bars generating noise and litter. Yet a more holistic approach is needed in the area, he added.

In response to homelessness and other issues, the Sheriff’s Department in June proposed adding another Sheriff’s deputy to patrol beaches and downtown Encinitas. Kranz, who was among the council majority that voted to table that request, said he’s not sure a Sheriff’s deputy is the best option.

“Frankly, I think we need to look at other solutions when it comes addressing homelessness,” Kranz said, adding it’s a “tough, complicated issue.”

Kranz said while residents occasionally bring up the homeless camping out at Cottonwood Creek Park and other areas, there hasn’t been much of a city dialogue over homelessness.

“Out of this subcommittee and future deliberations at the council, I expect some ideas that come to the surface for how to address this,” Kranz said.

“We probably should have done this a long time ago,” he added.

Paul Thompson, the CEO of Community Resource Center in downtown Encinitas, said he plans to weigh in throughout the subcommittee process.

Community Resource Center serves more than 11,000 people annually in North County through food assistance, workforce programs, emergency and transitional housing, counseling and financial management.

“We’re going to continue to be engaged and support both the city and those who themselves are homeless and interested in availing themselves of the resources that exist here,” Thompson said.


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