Top Priority : Street Youths Need a Place to Go, Say Counselors

Times Staff Writer

It’s a quiet afternoon at the Normont Terrace housing project, and Bardo Martinez leans against the open door of his ’72 Cutlass Supreme, casually swapping stories with four other teen-agers.

Soul music blares from the car stereo as the homeboys--street slang for friends or fellow gang members--talk of the latest series of arrests at the housing project, just two hours earlier. They say the bust has scared away many of their friends, but they expect them back by dusk.

The youths say they have no specific plans for the evening. They may cruise around the neighborhood; they may just stay where they are.

And while Martinez and his friends maintain that they plan to stay out of trouble, they also point out that “keeping clean” is often a difficult endeavor at Normont Terrace.

They say that the housing project is a troubled spot: a place where drug use is habitual, where narcotics sales are routine. With the drugs comes violence--a lot of threats, some fighting, an occasional shooting.

All that would be easier to avoid, they say, if there was someplace else to go.

‘No Place Else’

“There’s really no place else,” said 16-year-old Dan Morales. “A lot of people around here would be happy to have some place to go to, like a teen center. Instead of hanging around here and doing nothing, I’d rather be in a place like that.”

These youths’ problems--both the strong presence of drugs and gang activity and the lack of alternatives--have recently become the concern of a San Pedro delinquency prevention agency.

For the last five months, youth workers from the nonprofit Toberman Settlement House Inc. have been trying to befriend such Harbor City teen-agers, provide them on-the-spot “street” counseling and secure a local facility for youth recreational, cultural and educational activities.

“We try to let them know that we’re here to help,” said Toberman worker Joe Martinez, 38, who counsels on the streets of the housing project about five hours a day, five days a week. “A lot of them listen to us, and I think it helps them to know that someone cares about what’s going on.”

However, the Toberman counselors say that their most important aim right now is to find a place for a youth activity center in the Normont Terrace neighborhood.

400 Housing Units

The housing project, which sprawls over more than two city blocks near Pacific Coast Highway and Vermont Avenue, has 400 housing units, mostly in weatherbeaten, two-story buildings.

Police say Normont Terrace--along with Wilmington’s Dana Strand housing project--has the most drug-related activity in the harbor area. According to Sgt. Bill Antkiewicz, a Los Angeles Police Department task force has been targeting those areas during the last six months.

“Many of these kids get into gang activities and drugs because they don’t have anything but idle time,” said James Davis, who supervises the Toberman youth program and, like the other counselors, is a former gang member. “I think that the most important thing is getting the kids off the streets and giving them a positive, supervised atmosphere--something that would serve as an alternative.”

Davis added, “One thing you learn on the streets is that you don’t take something away from somebody without having something to replace it with.”

But finding a center for alternative activities has been difficult at best, Toberman officials say.

The group’s search for a youth center dates back about nine months, when the Toberman House--uhich has a 37-year track record in San Pedro--first received funds to expand its services into the Normont Terrace area of Harbor City by United Way Inc.

No Response

Toberman executive director Howard Uller said he placed calls to several officials from the Los Angeles City Housing Authority, which runs the Harbor City housing project, hoping to use a recreation center on Normont Terrace grounds. According to Uller and Toberman counselors, that facility is vacant.

“I tried to talk to a lot of people over several months,” Uller said. “I don’t think I’ve ever experienced such absurdity. I couldn’t even get a return phone call most of the time. They never said no--they just never said yes. They didn’t say anything.”

Homer Smith, executive director of the housing authority, could not be reached for comment. Other housing officials would not comment specifically about Normont Terrace.

Uller has since tried everything from leasing a private warehouse to purchasing an $85,000 home owned by the Veteran’s Administration. Each new prospect, he said, appears to have fallen through.

Now, he said, he is trying to get help from Los Angeles Councilwoman Joan Milke Flores and Rep. Glenn M. Anderson (D-Long Beach).

Some Reinforcements

The group’s efforts, however, have recently been reinforced by those of Harbor City residents. Residents attending a meeting of the Harbor City Coordinating Council two weeks ago not only voted to endorse the group’s work but said they would assist in the campaign to locate a youth center.

“The kids need the help,” said resident Billie Lee. “There is a bad problem at Normont Terrace. I hope and I wish that the counselors can accomplish something. I am willing to even come in and help; people have got to get involved.”

Said Harbor City resident Joeann Valle, “We know there is a tremendous problem at Normont Terrace. There is a lot of gang activity, there are bullet holes, there is graffiti. If we could have something similar to what San Pedro has with its Toberman House facility, I think it would get the kids off the street and give them some guidance and something constructive to do. It would give them alternatives.”

Church Support

The Toberman Settlement House is supported primarily through the United Methodist Church, the United Way and private donations. In San Pedro, the Toberman House has an array of programs serving all age groups, from infants to senior citizens. The Harbor City program also includes an after-school program, based in Normont Terrace Elementary School, for “latchkey” elementary schoolchildren who would otherwise go home to an empty house.

The group’s efforts with juveniles and gangs in Harbor City, though still developing, are already showing signs of success, teen-agers say.

"(The counselors) talk to us a lot,” said 16-year-old Gebie Martinez. “They’re always cruising around here, trying to get us out of gangs and out of trouble.”

Said 14-year-old Ben Maalona, “They come around and they talk to us about problems . . . sometimes they save one of us, sometimes they lose one.”

Davis, the counseling supervisor, said the group realizes it cannot resolve all the youths’ problems, but feels its efforts have been important.

“We try to swoop down on kids who look like they might not be totally into the gangs and drugs yet,” Davis said. “Sometimes it depends how deep they are into drugs. We’re not saying that we’re miracle workers, that we’re going to wipe out the problems. But if we can reach a segment of the group that’s out there, then we’ve done something.”

He added, “If we can do that, not only do the kids benefit, but the community benefits. I’m not saying we ever give them another chance in life, but working with them sometimes helps them get another chance.”