After another frenzied weekend of gang-related violence, Venice community leaders gathered Wednesday to hear one possible solution to what they consider the area's leading problem:
If you can't remove the gang activity in the area, at least you can try to remove the gang leaders for a while.
That approach was pitched to more than 100 Venice activists, merchants, social service workers, city and county officials and police officers who packed the area's old City Hall building to hear a presentation from a nationwide organization that deals with the problems of big-city youths.
Naomi Benghiat, a volunteer with the Los Angeles-based Youth at Risk group, outlined the organization's program, which raises money to send troubled teen-agers to a two-week wilderness camp, where they are taught to redirect their energy toward more successful endeavors.
"The basic idea is to remove them from their destructive environment and talk about the obstacles that stop them from succeeding in their own lives," she said. "At the camp they are faced with a lot of physical challenges with the idea being that they will look at the challenges they must face in order to succeed."
The program requires the community to raise the money, about $4,000 a person, for counseling services, meals and transportation to the camp.
Local leaders, such as school officials and police officers, identify troubled youths who might benefit from the program. They are then screened by a committee. Benghiat said that the youths must participate in the program voluntarily.
Volunteers then monitor the participants for a year, after they return from camp.
Youth at Risk has run similar programs for up to 100 inner-city teen-agers in Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit, Oakland and South-Central Los Angeles.
Jack Hoffmann, president of the Venice Action Committee, said he organized the meeting because of the escalating gang and drug-dealing problems in the area. After listening to Benghiat's presentation, Hoffmann personally pledged enough money to sponsor one youth.
"Venice is a difficult place to live and work; we've got a lot of problems," he said. "But if we could target the gangs and the violence, I think we could handle all the other problems easily.
"If we could just target the minority of people that are causing a majority of problems, then I think we could really solve this. The cost is really small compared to what we've already been paying."
However, Melvyn Hayward, an activist who works with gangs in Venice's Oakwood area, said that the $400,000 needed for the program would be better spent on organizations already in the community.
"We've been working with nothing here," he said. "We can't even get money for recreation programs. We could use that money for something better. That program wouldn't change a thing. As soon as the camp was over, everything would be just like it was."
Sgt. Bill Humphry, a detective in the Los Angeles Police Department's West Bureau anti-gang unit, Community Resources Against Street Hoodlums, said that one person was killed and nine others were injured in four separate gang-related shootings in Venice over the weekend. So far this year, he said, there have been three gang-related homicides in the area, but more than one dozen throughout the Westside.
Lt. Ron Dina, who heads the CRASH program, said he supported the Youth at Risk program.
"I think it's a great idea," he said. "Anything that would get these kids together and give them a common goal other than crime would be helpful. They just need to know that they can do something with themselves."