Alex Gomez, 17, draws a colorful butterfly during an art session at Centro C.H.A., a youth resource center, on Aug. 25, 2017. (Photos by Crystal Niebla)
LONG BEACH, Calif. — At around age 15, Luis Guerrero of Wilmington used to ditch Phineas Banning High School to rumble, tag and claim territories, among other things.
He was kicked out of Banning because many believed he was a leading presence of the Westside Wilmington gang at the school.
His dad made him go to Avalon Continuation High in Wilmington, but he could care less about school. There, he met Danny Flores, who was running the MAGIC program, a then-youth interventionist initiative at Avalon.
“He was a bad boy when I met him,” Flores said.
Flores recognized that Guerrero had an issue with street life, which is why he pulled him into the arts which he believed helped positively channel and focus the mind of a troubled youth.
“He clung on even though he was [supported by] mom and dad, but he really needed like a big brother,” Flores said. “I was able to walk him through manhood, and he succeeded far more than I could even imagine.”
Guerrero caught up with all his high school credits at Avalon and graduated on time. Ten years later, he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Chicano and Latino Studies at Cal State Long Beach and was accepted into the university’s master’s in education program this year. He currently is a part-time, student-parent liaison at Avalon and works every summer at Will Hall Park in Wilmington for Summer Night Lights, an evening activity program meant to keep youth out of trouble.
“He saved my life,” Guerrero, now 26 years old, said about Flores’ mentorship.
The story of how Flores helped Guerrero get his life in order and disassociated with gang life is not incredibly unique. Flores now works as a safety and justice manager at Centro C.H.A., a youth resource center in Long Beach, where he sees thousands of youth come through the door by the end of the year.
This is why Flores, along with many other youth-involved community members in Long Beach, believe that gang prevention and intervention through youth, summer and after-school programs are essential in combating violence and crime in a city. But Long Beach doesn’t spend the needed money on these types of programs, according to them. Instead, the city fights crime by hiring more police.
In the new 2017-2018 budget, the city gave more than 40 percent of its General Fund Expenditures, the city’s discretionary portion, toward public safety, totaling $222.2 million for the Long Beach Police Department, according to updated figures from a city official.
Both violent and property crime has increased in the past years, which prompted Long Beach Mayor Robert Garcia to push for increased police funding to address the issue. When first proposed, the city budget asked for $240 million for police. Although the police department didn’t get that, there will also be $4.3 million from Measure A set aside for the city’s fourth consecutive police academy class, which essentially produces more police officers.
On the other hand, funding for the Parks, Recreation and Marine Department, which encompasses youth programs, is receiving $33.8 million from General Fund Expenditures. The city also added $100,000 to the Health and Human Services Department to support My Brother’s Keeper, a program aimed to mentor at-risk youth.
What worries community advocates is the dissimilar pace in which police and youth services see funding increase. The police department will receive about a $22 million boost compared to last year’s adopted budget, while parks will see about a $602,000 bump, according to a budget analysis by the Advancement Project, a civil rights organization.
A 2007 report by the Justice Policy Institute, a criminal justice reform think-tank, compiled overwhelming evidence that the use of extensive social resources such as job training, mentoring, after-school activities and recreational programs significantly reduce gang violence. Meanwhile, cities that rely on gang suppression through law enforcement have far less impact, it found, and much less cost efficiency, as well.
The theory among advocates is that policing only suppresses violent crime without targeting its root — the socio-economic voids filled by, for some youth, a life in a gang.
Jessica Quintana, the executive director of Centro C.H.A., a center that is not city funded, believes that programs and centers like hers help stop to end the cycle of gang involvement. There, the center offers job training programs, juvenile record sealing, academic mentoring and much more.
“We as a community organization try to fundraise to create those spaces for them, but what we provide is a drop in a bucket compared to what’s needed citywide in these hard, low-income, disenfranchised communities,” she said.
Bsaim-Zahmad Crouch, 18, received his food handler’s card and retail certification through Centro C.H.A.’s training programs.
Crouch, who also earns money helping host park activities in partnership with Long Beach’s Be S.A.F.E. youth program, credited the center with helping him become a positive role model.
“It helped me be able to be a good person,” he said. “And to show them that you don’t have to fight negativity with negativity.”
Seventeen-year-old Alex Gomez, who struggled academically, joined Centro C.H.A.’s programs because she wanted to get a job to help out her parents and aim for a career.
“Now that I’m here and getting the feeling of what it feels like to work and go to school, I’m doing way better now,” she said.
Gomez works alongside Crouch at Silverado Park. She recalled how many of the youth she interacts with have problems at home, too.
“Basically, the park is their way out just to have fun and be a kid,” she said.
For Be S.A.F.E. Silverado Park coordinator Pedro Torres, he thinks that youth programs are more than just a hangout spot. His staff wear the hats of psychologists, counselors and mentors and are consequently young people’s “ bridge to success,” he said.
“They’re times when all they need is somebody to talk to,” Torres, 26, said. “…They’re going to see you more or just as much as they see their parents.”
Torres has worked for many of the city’s parks programs since 2012, such as community youth sports and after-school programs. The common flaw, he noticed, was they never had enough funding.
“Sometimes we’re limited to a minimum amount of staff when in reality, we need seven, eight staff — even if it is just for 25 kids, 30 kids,” he said.
While youth leaders say their programs continue to lack funding, other Long Beach residents continue to prioritize police services.
A city budget survey of residents’ priorities ranked police services higher than those for youth-related programs. However, the number of respondents represented less than 1 percent of the city’s estimated population of 485,000, with affluent Districts 2, 3 and 5 yielding the highest responses.
District 5 alone made up 58 percent of all youth recreation expenditures in 2016-17’s adopted budget, according to analysis by the Advancement Project.
Lea Eriksen, the city’s assistant finance director, said the budget draws influence from the city’s outreach efforts via the survey and various community budget meetings throughout the year, which can be out of reach to residents who don’t fit the time frame. And for some, timing is everything.
Guerrero’s friend was recently murdered during a reported car-to-car shooting. He thinks if more programs were available across the county, things would be different.
“We have enough soldiers on the streets,” Guerrero recalled Flores’ life-changing counsel. “We need soldiers to fight for our communities.”
Disclosure: The author has a personal acquaintance with a source in the story, Luis Guerrero.