War on Gang Violence Retreats

Times Staff Writer

Funding cuts for a countywide, community-based organization that works to curb street violence have slashed personnel by nearly 50% in the area office here.

Already thinly spread over five cities in the Southeast area, the Rio Hondo office of the Community Youth Gang Services Project in Pico Rivera lost four street workers out of nine as a result of a recent $318,000 reduction in county financing for the organization.

'Dramatic Decrease'

Ironically, the cuts in the field office come at a time when the gang project is "partially responsible for a dramatic decrease in gang-versus-gang violence in Pico Rivera this year," said Sheriff's Deputy Oscar Rosalez of the Pico Rivera Sheriff's Station's Operation Safe Streets, an anti-gang unit.

"They try to identify different hot spots in the area with the gangs and keep them from losing their heads," Rosalez said. "I'm sure part of the slowdown is due to their effort."

Because of the cuts, the office will drop its coverage of Hawaiian Gardens and Artesia, said Rio Hondo project team leader Johnny Garcia. Four street workers will cover Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs, he said, with one person assigned to Norwalk.

City officials in Hawaiian Gardens and Artesia had opposing reactions to the withdrawal of the program from their areas.

"They've been an effective program here," said Hawaiian Gardens City Administrator Douglas Dunlap. "I think it's unfortunate that the severity of the cuts are going to impact us that greatly."

Artesia Mayor Robert Jamison said he opposed "former criminals trying to stop members of a gang" and called the project "a hindrance to the Sheriff's Department rather than an assistance."

The project, which was formed in 1981 by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors in response to a rising level of gang violence, has worked with 400 street gangs in an area encompassing the San Fernando Valley, East Los Angeles, Altadena, South-Central and Northeast Los Angeles as well as the Southeast area. The City of Los Angeles began contributing to the project in 1982.

Citing budgetary constraints, the Board of Supervisors' majority last month approved a $568,000 cut in funds for the project. Under pressure from project members and Supervisor Ed Edelman, who helped form the project four years ago, the board later voted to reinstate $250,000. With the funding cut, the county's portion of the $2-million 1985-86 budget is $1.2 million.

Personnel Reductions

As a result of the cutback, the project was forced to reduce its total personnel from 107 to 82, cut administrators' salaries by 10% to 15% and sell five vehicles, project director Steve Valdivia said.

The Pico Rivera regional office was hardest hit by personnel cuts, he said, but street teams were reduced from five to four members in all areas. Street teams that formerly provided community coverage seven days a week will now work only Tuesdays through Saturdays, Valdivia said. In order to make the street workers more effective in the Southeast area, Valdivia said, the project may withdraw from still more areas.

As a result of the cuts, on-the-spot response by project workers to gang-related crises in Pico Rivera, Norwalk and Santa Fe Springs has suffered, Garcia said, and the office has curtailed handball, football and softball tournaments and other recreational activities it organizes among rival neighborhoods.

In an area where more than 10 dmajor gangs operate, the work of the 4-year-old project has never been easy, Garcia said, even when as many as 13 street workers patrolled the communities.

"We couldn't ever have enough street workers, there's so much that has to be done," he said.

More Work, Less Pay

For street worker Gloria Avila, 46, of Pico Rivera, the cuts mean harder, longer work without extra pay. Avila, a mother of three former gang members, works weekend nights. In a car marked with the gang project name and emblem, she patrols streets in Pico Rivera and Santa Fe Springs and often supervises neighborhood parties that could develop into targets for rival gangs.

Before the cuts, two cars and four street workers could patrol two communities at once and thus help prevent possible violence between rival gangs, Garcia said. Now only one car is available for night patrol, he said. Avila said she often drops off a fellow worker at a "hot spot" and then patrols alone.

"We're not supposed to be riding alone, but what can you do?" she asked.

In addition to crisis intervention and employment referral, the street workers' job includes placing gang members in drug rehabilitation centers and even escorting gang members to school and work to protect them from rival gangs. The project workers--some of whom are ex-gang members--also organize outings to Dodger games and rope-climbing exercises in the Simi Valley for gang youths who have never been out of their neighborhood.

Use Time to Talk

Above all, the street workers spend their time talking. They talk to gang members eager for retaliation against a rival gang, to youths newly released from jail, to gang members heavily into drugs, to parents who are unaware that their child is involved in gangs.

"We're trying to say, 'You don't have to be killing each other. There's something better to life than just gang-banging, going to jail and getting loaded,' " Avila said. "I feel we have instructed some to where they can do things for themselves."

Pico Rivera officials said the project has helped increase community awareness of gang problems and curbed gang violence and graffiti.

The gang project provides a "great service" in Pico Rivera because "they make parents aware of what gangs mean," said Maria Aguirre, president of the El Rancho Unified School District Board of Education.

Informal Style

The project has "made some good inroads . . . in reducing gang activity in the city," said Bill Kent, director of the Pico Rivera Parks and Recreation Department. "They work in their own informal style to educate a gang member to alternative things."

But not all cities are equally enthusiastic about the service provided by the project.

Continual cutbacks in gang project personnel over the years have hampered the organization's effectiveness in Santa Fe Springs, Assistant City Manager Fred Latham said. Because they are spread so thin, street workers have not been able to establish "a real in-depth rapport with families and youngsters involved," he said.

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