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Developing a Comprehensive Approach to Ending Youth Violence
in Santa Monica and the Westside
Framing the Challenge
On November 3, 2009 Richard Juarez was murdered at Virginia Avenue Park. His death marked the 40th time since 1989 a family has had to suffer a loss due to homicide in Santa Monica, the majority of these homicides occurring within an 8 block “red zone” in the Pico Neighborhood. Another fact is that the most recent victims of homicide are youth that were not gang involved. The impact of this historic pattern of violence on families has been catastrophic and resident’s overall quality of life has been permanently distressed.
Gangs and the violence that they produce is a symptom of a much larger problem that has its root in the hopelessness that poverty and marginalization produce. Gang members are not born but made. Poverty, family instability, early school failure and early incarceration are common traits most gang members share. Gangs are a product of our community’s failure to direct public policy and resources to our most marginalized youth and their respective families. It is a societal challenge that affects us all but certain neighborhoods because of racial segregation, lack of political representation and historic neglect have been disproportionately impacted.
Community Response to Youth Violence
As long as gang violence has persisted there have been various community attempts to address the problem with mixed results. Community leaders have advocated for and created jobs, education and recreation programs for youth. In the 1970’s and in the early 1990’s gang intervention workers organized gang involved youth to momentarily end gang warfare. In 1998 community activists organized the 1,000 people march called the Vigil for Peace that led to the creation of the Pico Youth & Family Center (PYFC). On December 17, 2005 the Pico Neighborhood Association along with the PYFC convened a panel discussion made up of former gang members followed by a town hall meeting that produced a report titled: Preventing Youth Violence and Drug Abuse: Building a Safer Community-One Youth at a Time. The PYFC like the other youth serving agencies has made a positive impact on the lives of youth, showing that transformation is possible, especially for those youth that made mistakes in the past.
City of Santa Monica Response to Violence
In February and April of 2005, for the first time ever the City of Santa Monica along with Senator Sheila Kuehl sponsored two community forums to develop solutions to the gang violence that plaques our community. Although various ideas and commitments were generated from these forums, the outcomes have not been fully realized or consistently assessed. The failure to implement a comprehensive plan rests in our inability to raise this problem to a level of importance and amend the existing infrastructure to facilitate the completion of multi-agency goals, outcomes and objectives.
Creating an Infrastructure to Sustain the Work
As stated in a report submitted by the City of Santa Monica staff on March, 2006 titled: Efforts to Address Gang and Youth Violence, Ensure Community-Based Public Safety and Improve the Quality of Life in the Pico Neighborhood “These efforts are important but cannot prevent gang violence within our borders without a regional focus, with institutions, community groups and officials outside our borders working together toward meaningful prevention, intervention and enforcement outcomes.” It is time for us to provide a meaningful and sustainable solution. The lack of consistent attention by City staff is endemic to the problem. Although a much larger problem, but also regional in scope, the City’s work and focus on homelessness is the model for developing the type of initiative that will create real and lasting change. This is a community problem and we should not have to wait until youth violence affects the promenade or the tourist sector of our City to act.
In partnership with the PYFC the City created the Youth Resource Team (YRT) at Virginia Avenue Park to strengthen relationships between youth serving agencies and provide a forum to address the needs of at-risk youth. The work of the YRT is promising but more is needed to create the change our residents deserve. There are various models that we can learn from but we need a comprehensive action plan that creates the infrastructure to proactively address the violence that is sporadic but on-going. Dedicated staff resources with a clear mandate will provide the support necessary to implement strategies and sustain progress. Accountability, performance measures and follow through must be cornerstones of a sustainable plan to prevent youth from joining gangs in the first place. A positive change in the attitude of our institutional culture must motivate, not delay, our resolve to address this problem.
We strongly urge the council to take a proactive stance and commit government resources and consider this community-based approach that builds on past efforts and programs we already fund.
Create a Youth Violence Prevention Task Force
A new era of inter-agency collaboration within Santa Monica is needed to ensure every youth has the support needed for success. A City of Santa Monica taskforce on this issue will parallel the City of Los Angeles who has recently invested $13million to develop an infrastructure to consistently address this challenge. The current Youth Resource Team at Virginia Park can potentially transition into a taskforce with the following mandate:
Assess current programs, services and youth violence prevention and intervention initiatives.
Identify service gaps for at-risk youth and identify best practices that can be implemented.
Develop committee’s that focus on a collaborative approach related to policies and programs that can be developed by SMMUSD, SMC and SMPD.
Appoint City staff to coordinate and facilitate the work of the Taskforce and produce a report that makes recommendations and responds to the following:
Regional Partnerships for Violence Prevention & Intervention
We cannot end regional gang violence in one city alone. Similarly to the regional efforts being committed to law enforcement, the City of Santa Monica can facilitate a regional focus on prevention and intervention strategies. There are six gangs that have existed in the Westside of Los Angeles and violence between them has been consistent for the past 40 years. To understand the problem fully, law enforcement and community agencies should meet to identify the number of shootings, homicides and injuries and place these incidents in a historical timeline, showing where these incidents occurred. Diverse families, churches and organizations from the Westside can create a public campaign to assist in the healing and to build community across racial and neighborhood lines. The breakdown of community is where the division between our youth thrives. Relationship building amongst local governments to solve social problems can serve as an example to community. Parents who are victims of violence can gather to form support groups with the assistance of churches.
Single Parent Family Assessment and Support
Parenting workshops, conflict resolution, intervention counseling and gang and/or drug awareness workshops for new immigrant parents.
Provide Stipends for Former Gang Members who have been certified as gang intervention workers to Support Direct Gang Intervention
Former gang members can be most instrumental in working with youth agencies conducting interventions with gang involved and gang inclined youth. Former gang members can also assist in crisis situations where de-escalating gang violence is needed.
Male-Centered Counseling, Training and Support Groups
Many at-risk youth who find gangs attractive lack fathers and positive male role models. Additionally, the majority of youth experiencing school failure are boys yet there is very little focus or initiative on addressing their needs with gender specific strategies.
Develop Re-entry Services for Formerly Incarcerated Youth with Probation and SMPD
The YRT at Virginia Park is currently working on this initiative and with support can make significant progress.
Substance Abuse Treatment and Resources for Youth
There is a strong correlation with substance abuse and violence yet most of the drug rehabilitation resources in the community focus on adults.
Residential Housing for Transitional Youth and Rehabilitation
When OPCC opened the new facility on Cloverfield Blvd a promise was made to reserve 8 beds for transitional youth who are in need of alternative living but this never materialized.
Peer Mentoring for Academic Success
SMMUSD has developed the Connect for Success program but budget cuts will threaten intervention programs in the future.
Develop Culturally Relevant Curriculum in Secondary Schools
A positive identity founded in ones knowledge of history is key in combating the attraction of gang sub cultures. Latino and African American youth can benefit from receiving instruction in an academic setting of the positive history and contributions of both cultures.
Integrate Gang Prevention Strategies in SMMUSD’s Middle School Reform Efforts
The SMMUSD has created a working group that is looking at reforming middle school. Gang prevention efforts need to be a part of this plan.
Extended Special Use of 415 PCH, Airport Hangers and Beach Services
We must maximize our use of existent resources to provide space at an affordable rate to families and social service providers.
Enhance the Physical Look of the Pico Neighborhood with Community Gardens
The Pico Neighborhood is home to some of the City’s most blighted areas. Empty lots and problem buildings need attention. One strategy can include working with property owners to provide community gardening space to residents.
Improved Community-Police Relations
There are various models that can lead to better communication and mutual support between families in need, community stakeholders and law enforcement.
Employment and Job Training that is Connected to New Development, LUCE and the Local Economy
Create new jobs and ensure target population has access, especially youth and young adults with past criminal history. Begin developing policy that will ensure first source hiring on all new construction projects. Construction training can be attained through Playa Vista Jobs and Youth Build. An at-risk youth job set aside component can be implemented in larger development projects. Jobs can be created by tapping into Santa Monica’s power as a tourist destination. Tours of the City, cabanas north of the pier, providing youth agencies support with carts to sell youth made products can create new jobs and entrepreneurship opportunities.
Stipends for Project-based Summer Employment for Youth
Youth need summer employment opportunities that give them an opportunity to serve their community. Part-time and full-time jobs that are six to eight weeks will give youth opportunities to play sports or attend summer school while earning income.
Community & Youth Input from Pico Neighborhood Residents
Since the Pico Neighborhood has never had a resident representative on the Santa Monica City Council this makes community input key to attaining community buy-in for a successful gang violence prevention strategy. Engage community voices, especially those working with the target population in the Pico to guide our advocacy around this issue.
Public Relations Campaign
Homicide is the number one cause of death for African American youth between the ages of 15 to 25 in Los Angeles. As stark as these statistics are we do not see an investment in promoting non-violence and resistance to gang membership. A consciousness raising public relations campaign that speaks to youth and the values that they engender can have a tremendous impact. A well thought out campaign can educate youth and teach them to think critically about their behavior and its impact on our community. Youth leaders have already started working on developing a multi-media school assembly to build awareness in the four major high schools on the Westside of Los Angeles.
Although youth violence is a complex social problem, one thing is certain. Marginalization and lack of economic or educational opportunity directly contributes to the loss of hope in our youth, which in turn leads to self-destruction. Furthermore, youth violence like other public health matters is preventable and our public and non-profit agencies can be more collaborative, comprehensive and strategic in their approach to implementing and evaluating solutions to this challenge.