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Members of the Pico Youth Center walk down Pico Boulevard in a demonstration for political change on their way to City Hall on Tuesday afternoon. (photo by Brandon Wise)

PICO NEIGHBORHOOD — The murder of 20-year-old Richard Juarez Jr. as he left an art class at Virginia Park in November was a reminder that the threat from gangs persists in Santa Monica, despite decreasing violence in recent years.

Now, as City Hall faces possible cuts because of a projected budget deficit as high as $9 million, residents who live in the Pico Neighborhood are urging the City Council to continue to support programs aimed at keeping youth off the streets.

Despite afternoon rain, community leaders and Santa Monica High School students led a march from the Pico Youth & Family Center to City Hall on Tuesday to raise awareness about youth violence and at-risk youth, issues that organizers of the event said get too little attention in Santa Monica.

“Our goal is to remind the city that this continues to be an ongoing crisis and we need a sustainable solution,” said Oscar de la Torre, the center’s director and a member of the school board.

The group was also planning to present a white paper to the council outlining proposals to address gang violence.

One of its core suggestions was to set up a task force to address youth violence that includes members from the surrounding communities of Venice, Culver City and West Los Angeles. A 2006 report by City Hall staff argued for a regional approach to curbing violence but was never acted upon, de la Torre said.

Another recommendation is to use City Hall’s efforts to address homelessness as a “model for developing the type of initiative that will create real and lasting change” for at-risk youth.

City Councilman Richard Bloom said it’s a good idea to review City Hall’s spending on youth programs and to “re-engage the community” on the issue.

But he added, “I think there’s a possibility that everything could be affected by the budget deficit.”

He said while the gangs in surrounding areas can affect Santa Monica, he favors taking a local approach to the issue first.

The most recent homicide in the Pico Neighborhood, though, illustrates the need for regional cooperation and highlights the severity of the problem, organizers of Tuesday’s march said.

Juarez was shot to death Nov. 3 just before 9 p.m. as he was leaving Virginia Park. Family members said he was not a gang member, though his clothing may have made him a target for other gang members. Three men and one male who was a minor have been arrested in connection with the crime. All of the suspects lived outside of Santa Monica.

Juarez was the 40th homicide victim in Santa Monica since 1989, de la Torre said.

The march was scheduled to begin at the center’s headquarters at 715 Pico Blvd. and continue to City Hall, where the City Council was set to hold its first budget hearing of the year.

The possibility of program cuts offered an added reason for holding the demonstration, de la Torre said.

“We understand that the council will discuss the budget and we want to make sure youth violence prevention does not fall by the wayside,” he said.

“There’s going to be a lot of people demanding that money in these difficult times. This is about saving the lives of our children,” he said.

Julie Rusk, Santa Monica’s human services manager, said City Hall has continued to support youth programs with an annual payment of more than $300,000 to the Pico Youth & Family Center and has bolstered programs aimed at youths in recent years. A second Boys & Girls Clubs also opened at John Adams Middle School last year and City Hall continues to support the Police Activities League, which serve youths.

“This is an issue that has been on our forefront and our agenda for years,” Rusk said.

She also said Juarez’ death shows how intractable violence can be.

“Much of what we do was working, and yet this complete tragedy happened,” she said.

Rusk said she’s interested in reviewing de la Torre’s proposals, but noted City Hall is already involved in some regional efforts to reduce violence, for example by participating in the Westside Council of Governments.

Francisco Juarez, a Pico Neighborhood resident and relative of Richard Juarez, said while City Hall already supports needed programs for youths, the council could do more, for instance by setting aside days when at-risk kids could use the Annenberg Community Beach House or facilities at Santa Monica Airport for events.

He said an important first step is to get council members to consider youth programs a priority.

“I’m sure they know more about homelessness than they do about youth violence,” he said.

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