Local groups make stopping youth gang enlistment a top priority
Once law enforcement knows the name of a young gang member, many social safeguards have already failed and it is too late to help much, says Santa Cruz Police Department spokesperson Zach Friend. The Wednesday, Aug. 8 fatal shooting of 13-year-old Joey Mendoza in Santa Cruz has focused local conversations about gangs on how to keep children from joining in the first place.
“Law enforcement is not designed to be an early gang prevention model,” says Friend. “We are very close partners with school districts and Santa Cruz Neighbors to help identify people who may be having a hard time [or are at risk].”
Neighbors Of Lower Ocean (NOLO) is one group in the Santa Cruz Neighbors network playing a crucial role in that effort. Their office in the Familia Center on San Lorenzo Boulevard is just blocks away from where Mendoza died.
“First of all, we were all horrified and saddened by the tragedy,” says NOLO Executive Director Yolanda Henry. “Then we just got angry and frustrated that we run so many programs for youth and this still happens after all the work we do.”
NOLO runs a six-week summer program from late June through early August that involves at-risk youth in positive activities like bike rides to Wilder Ranch, volunteering at the Homeless Garden Project, playing sports, and going to the beach.
“We bring them where they can be of service and give more of an insight into what Santa Cruz has to offer,” she says. “Hopefully they will take that and say, ‘I will go hang out at Natural Bridges,’ and we love for them to go with their families.”
The six-week program is broken into two three-week sessions. One serves 25 elementary school-age children, and the second session is for the same number of youth between seventh and 10th grades.
“We don’t have a problem filling the slots, which shows us that parents don’t mind their kids having something healthy to do in the summer,” says Henry. She says she finds joy in seeing these kids later in their lives and hearing how these activities helped to nudge them toward productive and peaceful lives.
“We get to see that they are going to Cabrillo [College] and get to feel that maybe we planted some seed that led them that way,” she says. Henry also works with parents as a certified parent educator to look for signs that their child is involved in gangs, which she says they may not know to look for or might miss because they confuse the signs with current fashion trends.
“I spoke to one parent and said I had a concern with what her son was wearing and that people may think he is in gang,” says Henry. “The parents took that seriously and the next day he had none of that clothing.”
But that is about the closest Henry and NOLO will get to working with active gang members, she adds, given the limits of what they can do. Santa Cruz County juvenile probation referred teens to Henry’s programs in the past, but it caused some parents to remove their children who weren’t already “in the system.”
Just as the police recognize their role as enforcers of the law after a crime is committed, Henry says her facility is restricted to showing positive options to youths before they become involved in crime.
“We are focused on prevention, not intervention,” she says, adding that she believes that’s where groups like Barrios Unidos and Santa Cruz Community Counseling Center come in.
Barrios also works as a crime prevention organization, beginning with after-school programs that speak with kids as young as 5 about the risks of getting caught in the justice system and avoiding the world of violence.
They then extend guidance to those already in the juvenile system.
“We talk about all the factors affecting them,” says Barrios Unidos Assistant Director Otilio “OT” Quintero. “Sometimes it’s their neighborhood or family stresses. Unfortunately, there are those direct files going into prison. We try to prepare them on how to survive in the adult system. A sort of ‘Prison 101.’”
For youth in or out of the system, they help form transition plans that include assistance enrolling in school and finding jobs through their referral network.
“Many of them are damaged emotionally and need our help,” Quintero says.
Barrios’ goal is not necessarily to remove youth from gangs, but to be a resource and community that can help them head in a new direction, particularly one that includes education and employment.
“It’s not so much that we are getting kids out of gangs, but more that we are building a beacon of hope,” Quintero says. “We call it a lighthouse, where kids can go for help.”
However, he says that they are limited in the number of people they can help, often having to stretch $1 into two.
It is still unclear how or if approaches to curbing violence in the Santa Cruz area will change in light of the latest tragedy, says Friend. The death of 16-year-old Tyler Tenorio, who was a victim of gang violence in 2009, sparked the creation of an SCPD gang unit that works with law enforcement from Santa Clara, Monterey and San Benito counties.
“This is not unique to our city, and events here affect what happens in Watsonville and the same the other way around,” says Friend. “The gangs are not paying attention to jurisdictional boundaries. Just because a murder happens 10 miles from your home should not make you feel more comfortable about it.”
Connecting dots and stamping out gang activity is a constantly transforming process. Gang sweeps during the last year in the four collaborating counties have led to the arrests of dozens of registered gang members. However, Friend says that the headlines and feeling of triumph this creates in the short term doesn’t make the problem go away.