By Michael Feinstein. Inside/Outside. June 23, 2015

Youth were being shot in our streets. It was October 1998 and within a span of 15 days, four were killed and several others injured during a month-long gang war erupting on the Westside.

On October 12, Omar Sevilla, 22, a Culver City resident and member of the Culver City Boyz gang, was gunned down on Pico Boulevardand Sixth Street near Santa Monica High School. Five days later, in a retaliatory strike for Sevilla’s death, Juan Martin Campos, 28 — a City employee in the Public Works Department and former gang member — was chased into the back room of a liquor store on the corner of Pico Boulevardand 20th Street and shot dead.

Within 24 hours, Jaime Cruz, a UCLA student from the Pico Neighborhood, was shot and wounded while getting into his car near 17th Street and Michigan Avenue. Then on Oct.27, two brothers — Michael Juarez, 27, and Anthony Juarez, 19 — were shot and killed inside a cousin’s clothing store on the 2200 block of Lincoln Boulevard, while a customer and shop owner were also wounded.

In response, on Nov.2, more than 1,000 community members came together for a historic candlelight vigil to protest the violence. Not by coincidence, the vigil was held during El Dia de los Muertos — a Mexican holiday that focuses on gatherings of family and friends to pray for and remember friends and family members who have died, and help support their spiritual journey.

The vigil was organized by current Santa Monica-Malibu school board member Oscar de la Torre, then 27 and a counselor at Santa Monica High School, who had just returned to the community after receiving his master’s in public affairs at the University of Texas. Beginning at St. Anne’s Church (at 20th and Olympic Boulevard), we marched (I was there) to the corner of 16th Street and Michigan Avenue., where de la Torre had seen his first drive-by shooting when he was only 12 years old, of fellow Pico Neighborhood resident Rafael Godinez, who was only 14.

De la Torre and several others spoke that night about the tragic history of the numerous youth that had been killed in the Pico Neighborhood between 1982 and 1998, which at the time was reported to be over 20 (and today de la Torre argues is many more, as peoples’ memories have filled in the gaps.)

There was clearly a sense in the community that this had to stop — but how?

That same month Manny Lares — then 25 years old and a field representative for our former State Senator Tom Hayden, founder of the Santa Monica chapter of Barrios Unidos, and also born and raised in the Pico Neighborhood — brokered a peace treaty between the warring Santa Monica and Culver City gangs that had been implicated in the shootings.

Seeking long-term solutions

But what about the root causes of these conflicts? What about the issues of poverty and lack of opportunity that can discourage even the best intended young people, driving them into self-destructive lifestyles for themselves and their community?

In June 1999, the City Council approved an Older Youth and Young Adults Funding Rationale that would be used in a Request for Proposals to identify organizations that could begin to address local youth at high risk of violent or criminal behavior, poor school performance, dropping out, and unemployment.

Crafted by our City’s Human Services division, it stated “from recent local community dialogue to what we have learned from best practices across the country, we know that these young people need targeted and consistent support (role models, resources and networks) to build the skills needed to participate and contribute in the community. A targeted investment in these young people could yield substantial returns.”

In January 2000, City Council voted to approve a Five-Month Planning Grant to Santa Monica Barrios Unidos and The Parachute Program/Proyecto Adelante Alliance, “For Collaborative Program Services Targeting Older Youth and Young Adults in the Pico Neighborhood.”

I was one of the Councilmembers who voted unanimously that night to approve the funding, and one of the appealing things about it was it’s organic nature — we were going to involve community members in community solutions. Rather than contracting with outside nonprofits, we were looking to those already active in the community to build bridges and solutions.

While the original marriage of three different groups didn’t pan out (in retrospect, some have called it a forced marriage), eventually the Proyecto Adelante Alliance evolved into the Pico Youth and Family Center, which began receiving City funding in 2000 and has continued in operation to this day.

One of the interesting dynamics of the PYFC is that, in starting from scratch, to some degree we were creating a new model compared to other nonprofits the City supports, which have had established histories separate from City support and involvement. This dynamic has not been without its rewards and challenges. Clearly, many youth in the community see the PYFC as a positive resource, based upon how many have come to the Council over the years speaking in support of its continued funding.

Yet there have been issues of financial and operational management that have plagued the PYFC. According to information provided to the City Council by city staff, in the PYFC’s early years, three different nonprofit management entities terminated their relationships with PYFC, “citing concerns regarding the viability of the organization and expressing their inability to provide the high level of oversight required to address PYFC’s administrative and organizational deficiencies.” Then, between 2004 and 2012, “the City provided PYFC staff and Board with technical assistance regarding organizational, administrative, and financial and program operations … [but] despite these efforts, PYFC continued to exhibit on-going and serious deficiencies.” The report concludes that “the PYFC has been inconsistent in program focus, communication, operations and staff roles” and that “City staff could not verify program outcomes.”

Sustainable services

So where does this leave us?

Starting in fiscal year 2013-14, the City reduced the amount of funding to the PYFC from the $300,000-plus it has been receiving annually to $225,000, and in 2014-15 the Council approved a one-time payment of $190,000 in Council discretionary funds for PYFC’s general operations and to allow it “time to move towards self-sufficiency through diversification of their funding base, including moving away from over-reliance on any one funding source.”

Tonight the Council is going to approve the City’s next budget. City staff has not recommended further one-time funding for the PYFC and the PYFC was not selected to receive ongoing funds from the City’s four-year Human Service Grant Cycle. In response to questions from Councilmembers during its late May study session, staff reports that expenses for PYFC’s rent, utilities and City fees are currently estimated at $89,967 annually — leaving the door open for the Council to possibly provide that level of PYFC funding. Should it?

Even though the Council couched its 2012-14 support as “last-chance” payments, de la Torre told me that the instability around the organization in 2012 and the court delays around it eventually receiving a $1.6-million grant from the foundation of the late philanthropist Peggy Bergman — whose endowment gives the center a maximum of 10 percent of the total amount each year — has meant that it has not been able to make its transition as rapidly as hoped. At the same time, to be fair to all other nonprofits the City supports and to Santa Monica taxpayers, there is a level of accountability that the PYFC must sustain if the Council is in good faith going to allocate further funding. And I don’t believe the motivation to cut funding comes from a lack of concern about the Pico Neighborhood from the City, even if that may have been the case before the late 1990s, as since then we’ve expanded Virginia Avenue Park and youth services there, added the Pico library branch and created the Youth Resource Team to ensure youth are connected with a range of needed services.

Yet the fact is the City created the PYFC as an organic entity. And with an executive director such as de la Torre — who plays multiple other community roles as an activist and officeholder — combined with a broadly interpretable mission statement that talks about “equipping disenfranchised youth and their families with leadership and advocacy skills,” it’s not surprising that some see the PYFC as sometimes crossing the line between administration and activism on the public’s dime.

As one former PYFC board member said to me, “de la Torre and the PYFC may be a round peg in a square hole, but they probably still saves lives.” The PYFC has evolved into a unique and imperfect organization that doesn’t always fit into society’s traditional boundaries. But neither do the problems it was created to address.

Michael Feinstein is a former Santa Monica Mayor (2000-2002) and City Councilmember (1996-2004). He can be reached via Twitter @mikefeinstein

Inside/Outside‘ is a periodic column about civic affairs Feinstein writes for the Daily Press, that takes advantage of his experience inside and outside of government.


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