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San Ysidro Project Discovers Cure for Ills of Gangs, Drugs

Times Staff Writer

When Villa Nueva was opened in an area plagued by gang- and drug-related crimes, it was known as a hotbed for illegal activities to the point that even the police patrolling the area were reluctant to enter the 390-unit, low-income housing project.

But, after almost 20 years of existence, the San Ysidro development has eliminated gangs from its grounds, and, through a successful teen club, unusual community unity and increased security, its 1,800 tenants now live in relative peace.

Although increased security and community cohesiveness have played important roles at the project run by an Augustinian order, the teen club established 13 years ago in the Guadalupe Center has been singled out as the key in the fight against gangs and drugs.

“People usually do things to cure the problem after it has happened,” said Felipe Muro, director of the teen club. “The main reason we don’t have (gangs) is that we have our own peer group. I guess it would be like a family, like one big family.”

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Muro, who grew up in Villa Nueva before he was hired as director of the club five years ago, said the teen-age members of the club now are probably the first generation at the complex in which the majority is thinking about college and not jail. Through the 75-member club and other programs in the community, most of the older teen-agers are now either working or in college.

Outlets for Energy

He attributes the lack of gang interest not only to the support system created by the club but also to the outlet it provides for aggressive energy through different activities, such as football and baseball.

“We have our own group,” said Rene Harris, 11. “We play a lot of sports, and we get to have fun, that is why we don’t believe in gangs and drugs.”

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In school, members of area gangs know who is from Villa Nueva and leave them alone, and, although there is some contact, the fellowship provided by the club takes away the allure a gang might have, said 16-year-old Jose Saldana.

According to detective Felix Aguirre of the San Diego Police Department’s street gang unit, Villa Nueva has “cleaned up quite a bit” and has become one of the better places to live in San Ysidro.

He, too, praises what the club has accomplished.

“Kids join gangs because they have nothing more to do,” Aguirre said. “They go out to find companionship and fellowship and eventually join gangs.”

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When Villa Nueva first opened its doors, the Augustinian priests who had taken over the task of managing the project did not have the time or manpower to screen all the tenants, and some “troublemakers” were admitted, said Father John Blethen, Villa Nueva’s social director.

“We’ve been in business for 20 years, and we ended up with some bad apples at first, but we’ve gotten rid of most of them,” he said.

More than 95% of the tenants in Villa Nueva receive federal rental assistance through a program for families with limited income.

Gang Members the Exception

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Blethen and Muro acknowledge that some teen-agers are still members of gangs, but they say those cases are the exception.

As important as the club has been in ridding the complex of gangs, they and others agree that the teen club could not have succeeded without community unity.

“Everybody pulls together when things need to be done,” Muro said.

That unity was created in part through a food cooperative, a religious education program, a preteen club, and an adult school. Also, since 1979, the project provides space in the La Paz Center for a YWCA outreach program.

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There is also a distribution center for the San Diego Food Bank, and every second Friday of the month the Villa Nueva bus carries enough staples from the food bank to distribute to 460 families, under the direction of Antonia Gallegos, a longtime Villa Nueva resident.

“Tenant unity is one of the greatest assets (here),” said Armando Hurtado, resident manager of Villa Nueva. “You have a steady population, and they are very community-oriented people. What we do is for the benefit of the community.”

The Augustinians have tried to create a Christian sense of community among the tenants, said Blethen, even though only about 60 units actively participate in Villa Nueva events.

“I would say it is a case of the minority having a good, strong influence over the majority,” he said. “I think that people who live here appreciate that they have a good environment and want to keep it that way.”

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Some residents say that, years ago, whenever something bad happened in San Ysidro, people would blame Villa Nueva residents. Now the turnaround is so complete that there is a two-year waiting list to get an apartment, and the Augustinians are not taking any more applications until the list shortens.

“Villa Nueva doesn’t provide just housing, it provides life, a dream, a future,” Blethen said. “It provides a lot of extra things.”


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