Cover Story : A Sense of Hope : Long Beach has enlisted schools, the police, the Boys and Girls clubs, and the YMCA in an effort to reach out to at-risk kids in some of the city’s toughest areas and give them . . .
Javier Collado, 15, a good kid with hard-working parents, lives in one of Long Beach’s poorest, most violent neighborhoods. Bodies are found in dumpsters, crack houses are as common as liquor stores and youthful rebellion can lead to a prison term or a pine box.
At one point, Javier seemed destined to become another crime statistic. He began staying out until midnight, failing at school and ignoring his parents’ pleas to stay off the streets.
All that changed, though, when he joined a basketball team at the downtown YMCA and found a friend in Bob Cabeza, the YMCA director. Cabeza helped Javier reconcile with his parents and encouraged him to improve his grades and behavior. Today, Javier is a tutor for the younger neighborhood kids and hopes to go to college.
Javier and other teens who are in danger of going astray have spurred the city of Long Beach to join forces with agencies such as the YMCA to provide youth programs in some of the city’s worst neighborhoods.
City workers are turning vacant lots into playgrounds and roaming neighborhoods in vans filled with sports equipment so kids can play in places without parks or fields.
They’re organizing teen-agers to pick up trash and erase graffiti. They’re offering art classes, midnight basketball games and workshops to help kids find jobs.
Officials have enlisted the schools, the police, the Boys and Girls clubs and foundations--tapping into existing programs, like the one at the YMCA, and creating new ones.
This comprehensive effort will serve as a model for other cities, said Ce Etta Crayton, associate professor in the department of leisure studies at Cal State Long Beach.
“Youthful crime will affect everyone as these kids become adults,” she said. “What Long Beach is doing is realizing that kids need attention, so they’re providing more programs for youth at risk.”
In the most disadvantaged neighborhoods, mostly on the city’s western section, bars cover the windows and doors on rows and rows of apartment buildings, graffiti mars walls and bus benches, and more than a quarter of the families live below the federal poverty level. On any given day, private and public child welfare workers battle the forces of poverty in these crowded, poor and violent neighborhoods.
On Mondays and Tuesdays in MacArthur Park, at Anaheim Street and Walnut Avenue, the park’s drill team practices maneuvers for its next competition under the guidance of a part-time counselor. At the downtown YMCA and at three schools within walking distance, youths spend a couple of hours a day with neighborhood children, tutoring, talking and playing games.
Behind a bail bondsman’s shop at 3rd Street and Magnolia Avenue, a city worker arrives in a van with portable play equipment and transforms a raggedy plot of land into basketball courts filled with chattering children. At Martin Luther King Jr. Park, city recreation leader Connie Odon can be found daily counseling girls about everything from sex to child abuse.
The city began mobilizing its efforts four years ago, at a time when the crime rate was soaring and the recession began depleting city coffers. The recreation department alone faces a 9.1% reduction this year in funds that pay for park programs and youth services. But the city has vowed to preserve services for the children who need it most, even if the cuts will mean fewer staff members, weedy parks with brown grass and delays in repairing aging buildings.
“We put youth first. If any investment is going to be made, it’s going to made in young people,” said Kelton Reese, superintendent for the community parks program. “We have a problem with youth. They are the future and we have to deal with the problem in a positive way.”
Every day, Tyrone Malone, 15, arrives at the downtown YMCA in the morning and collects his charges, 10 elementary school students who live nearby in a neighborhood where nearly half of the residents are supported by welfare. From hundreds of applicants, the YMCA selected Tyrone to be one of 40 high school and college leaders in the Youth Club Collaborative Program for At-Risk Kids, what YMCA director Cabeza calls “an inner-city Peace Corps.” Tyrone acts as counselor, mentor, tutor and role model for the black, Latino and Asian children assigned to him during summer day camp.
Tyrone relates to the children, Cabeza said, because he is growing up in similar circumstances. Before settling in Long Beach, Tyrone moved seven or eight times. He walks 30 minutes from his house to the Y because he cannot afford bus fare. Three of his six brothers and sisters live with him and his mother, who is unemployed. He rarely sees his father, who lives in Riverside County, he said.
Tyrone said his younger brother, now 13, hit a pregnant teacher and has been in juvenile hall and a group home for the last two years.
“My neighborhood is never good. There’s gangsters, shootings, lots of dope selling. When I go to wash clothes, I see them--smoking weed, shooting dice, being up all day and night, making noise. If you say something, you never know what will happen. You know they got a gun, but you don’t know what they’ll do,” Tyrone said.
Before he started going to the Y a year ago, he almost always stayed inside to avoid the danger of the streets. “But I was bored,” he said. “I needed to keep busy. I wanted to do some good.”
In addition to taking college preparatory classes at Long Beach Poly High during the school year, Malone works and tries to be a father figure to his siblings. “It’s hard,” he said, sighing. “Sometimes it’s really hard.”
“Tyrone is such a bright, wonderful kid with a great sense of humor,” said the YMCA’s Cabeza. “He talks about going to college so he can get out of the ghetto. If you give kids like him a chance, if you give them responsibility and a challenge, you’re going to make successful citizens out of all of them.”
The Irvine Foundation gave the YMCA’s Youth Club program a $230,000 grant, and the city contributes funds as part of its Neighborhood Improvement Strategy, a four-year-old project that targets the worst neighborhoods in Long Beach and provides youth services, more police protection, low-cost loans to property owners and a crackdown on building-code violators.
Based on such factors as crime, the number of welfare recipients and the percentage of absentee landlords, the city selected six of the worst areas and created neighborhood associations. Officials solicited advice from residents, and many attributed the areas’ problems to the lack of organized activities for kids, said the parks department’s Reese.
“The neighborhoods voiced the same concern with the same solution: We need to do something for our young people,” Reese said.
Out of that effort, innovative programs evolved. Counselors visit the streets to talk to gang members and wanna-bes, helping them find alternatives to crime and violence. An artist has launched a mural project to redirect graffiti vandals toward creating large-scale public artworks. Recreation leaders try to keep most inner-city parks open on weekends and in the summer so kids have a place to play.
The Long Beach Police Department started the Police Athletic League “to help give at-risk kids something to do beside hang out on street corners,” said police information Officer Karen Kerr. The league maintains a warehouse-sized sports center in an industrial part of 9th Street and staffs it with seven police officers who run the sports programs and arrange field trips. In the summer, the kids go sailing in a donated boat. In two years, participation in the program has grown from 75 to 1,000 youths.
At the back of the center, the Long Beach Unified School District holds classes for “last-chance kids,” Kerr said. The Long Beach schools play an important role in the web of activities designed to keep kids out of trouble, said Dennis J. Thys, Neighborhood Services Bureau Manager for the Department of Community Development and coordinator of the Neighborhood Improvement Strategy project.
Many of the city’s youth programs are anchored at Washington and Franklin middle schools, located in what the city four years ago named the two worst neighborhoods in town. Washington Middle School, for example, has become a neighborhood center where residents go for family and youth counseling. A probation officer helps students on probation stay in school. A part-time worker from the district attorney’s office helps students who are chronically truant. And the Long Beach Police Department has an office on campus.
Today, the Washington Middle School neighborhood is no longer the worst in Long Beach. It now ranks number seven, city officials said.
Long Beach’s success in the Washington School neighborhood mirrors a 1992 Carnegie Corp. study that found that American children often fall victim to gangs, drugs and premature sexual activity largely because they have so little to do after school and in the summer. The study challenged businesses and federal, state and local governments to provide greater resources for sports, recreation and after-school programs, especially for low-income teens.
Recreation leader Odon, 34, grew up in Long Beach, the daughter of a single mother who raised six children with very little money. When she was a kid, the parks were a second home to her and her friends, Odon said. The counselors were extended family, serving as aunts and uncles who supervised theatrical pageants and sporting events and provided help with typical teen-age problems.
“If you were having female problems, there was a lady to talk to. Back then, we’d go early in the morning and stay late at night. There were a lot more adults around to keep kids out of trouble.”
But that was before Proposition 13 drastically reduced the property taxes that paid for those programs and made future tax increases much tougher to get. In Long Beach, youth and recreation programs were among the first to go.
Meanwhile, youthful crime has continued to increase: Gang warfare accounted for about half of the record 137 murders last year, compared to 1987, when only four homicides were gang-related, according to police. In the last three years, juveniles arrested for grand theft auto have nearly doubled, from 233 to 437. And from 1992 to 1993, the number of juveniles arrested for robbery increased 70%, from 142 to 241.
Though Odon counsels as many teen-agers as possible, success, especially among the girls, has been limited.
“I preach to them, take them home, feed them, nurture them. They get out of high school, start in college and then they show up here pregnant. We have rap sessions, and I find out almost all of them are having sex, some as early as 12.”
She says the girls need structure. “They’re living in tough neighborhoods where you’re odd if you join the volleyball team, but it’s cool to sit around and do nothing. You don’t have to be that way because you’re poor. My mother didn’t have a lot of time to spend with us. She was working too hard to support six kids, working so we wouldn’t have to struggle like she did. We made it. We’re not all doctors and lawyers, but we made it. And we grew up in the same community.”
The big difference? Odon blames an overburdened, underfunded and ineffectual school system, the media for perpetuating racial stereotypes that focus on easy money, and rap music that encourages kids to disrespect each other. She also attributes the difference to absent parents, increasing violence, gangs and peer pressure at a time when kids have less and less to do.
Although hundreds of children and teen-agers use the parks, every year the money gets tighter and tighter. Today, Odon is the only full-time staff member at King Park, which she keeps open till 6 p.m. on weekdays during the summer. “After that, they go on the street,” she said. “What we’ve done is let them loose on the street.”
The recreation center at King Park is closed on weekends, she said, due to budget constraints. “When you cut people, you cut services. Like instead of having six soccer teams, I have two. The person who coaches soccer also has to watch the park. We didn’t have spring day camp this year because we didn’t have the money. You cannot tell us to come in at 90% of the budget and keep all services. Because that’s 90% of what we had last year. And that was only 90% of what we had the year before. Every year, we’re constantly being cut.”
The city is doing the best it can with dwindling funds, said parks program superintendent Reese. An estimated 35,000 disadvantaged kids live on the western section of Long Beach, and 8,000 participate in youth sports citywide, he said. But 20 of the city’s parks also provide free drop-in programs after school where staff members supervise kids playing games, working on arts and crafts projects, and doing homework.
Fifty-six elementary schools have an hour of supervised free play after school. And in the summer, the city and schools co-sponsor a free playground program at 21 schools from 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. (which ends Aug. 12), said school officials.
“I hope the (economy) improves in the next two years so we won’t have to sustain the cuts. We’re looking toward attempting to expand,” Reese said.