Concerned parents, residents, and elected officials gathered on Saturday, June 9, to create possible solutions to youth gang activity on the Westside and throughout Santa Barbara. Attendees heard a litany of problems-attributed to youths, parents, the city, and police, depending on who was speaking-and some possible solutions, including the idea of installing security cameras to monitor neighborhood gang activity. In the parking lot of a Cota Street apartment building, about 45 residents and concerned community members-some pushing strollers or holding the hands of their children-sat in the sun while they described their problems to local leaders.
Herminia Guerrero coordinated the meeting after contacting 1st District Supervisor Salud Carbajal to voice concerns she shared with other residents unhappy with what government agencies are doing to prevent gang activity. Carbajal headlined the panel of officials-which included Santa Barbara Mayor Marty Blum, city councilmembers Das Williams and Iya Falcone, and others. “For me this is a responsibility we have as a government,” said Carbajal. “Ms. Guerrero has a child fighting in Iraq. She is proud for her son, yet she is concerned about her own neighborhood.” Westside resident Miguel Castillo said he has seen an increasing number of kids in apparent gang attire loitering around the street corners of the neighborhood and that fistfights have become increasingly frequent. Castillo was one of countless residents who said that police response was slow at best and sometimes nonexistent.
Luis Uriarte, a 15-year resident of the lower San Pascual Street neighborhood, said it used to be cleaner and have fewer problems. But last Monday his brother was involved in a fight after school. “What gets me is that it happened right in front of [McKinley] school,” Uriarte lamented. He recalled a number of occasions on which police were called to stop an outbreak of violence, only to leave residents waiting for a response that sometimes never came. Assistant Police Chief Richard Glaus said his department wants to improve response times and is trying to find more officers who speak Spanish. Another important development looming for the police is the reinstatement of the bike patrol. The addition of cameras to the corners of apartment buildings is under consideration in order to help police pick out suspects in gang incidents.
Guerrero commented that sending problematic students to continuation schools creates more gang problems than it solves. “If they don’t do their homework, it seems that they get sent off to El Puente or La Cuesta. And that’s where the problems start.” According to Guerrero, the city suffers from a lack of free youth groups, and the present ones are not diverse enough.
City officials, including Parks and Recreation Director Nancy Rapp, were quick to point out the money earmarked in the recently approved budget for new youth programs in the city. “We do need you to ask,” she stressed, explaining that financial aid for the city’s summer youth programs and the downtown teen center does exist. Rapp then asked the dozen or so teens in the audience if they had been to the center. Most said no. Blum cited a poor communication system between residents and the city as the reason that many of the meeting’s attendees did not know about the various city programs available. “We are working very hard for you, and sometimes you don’t know about it,” she said. “And that’s frustrating.”
Some parents with older children claimed their teens were being turned down for jobs because of their sometimes-iffy criminal records. But Franklin Community Center Advisory Committee member Ricardo Venegas disputed the notion that there was a lack of employment opportunities for teens. “I have more than 40 jobs for kids all year ‘round,” he said. Venegas criticized the apparent lack of community involvement. “Parents say they don’t know where to go,” he recalled. Remembering when he worked at the Lower Westside center, he said he passed out notices to people to attend meetings. “Did anyone come? Maybe three or four people,” he said.