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Council Explores Tackling Youth Violence with Jobs

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

Oct. 15 -- The City Council voted near unanimously Tuesday night to explore allocating City contracted jobs to local at-risk youth as a means of battling youth violence, but the future of the ambitious work program was put in doubt by potential financial and legal constraints.

Spurred by a recent shooting spree in the Pico Neighborhood and a growing community outcry for City Hall to address a longstanding problem of youth violence in the City’s poorest part of town, the work program was introduced by Mayor Pro Tem Kevin McKeown as a possible solution.

The program seeking to integrate and expand existing City job training and employment programs, mostly in City contracted construction projects, coincides with the overhaul in leadership of the Pico Neighborhood Association, which is now dominated by working-class Latino women.

"We as the City can take a leadership position” on the issue, McKeown told his colleagues, pointing out that providing work opportunities “is the other side of the coin” in preventing youth violence. Jobs, he said, are central to keeping a whole generation of youth from disappearing from Santa Monica.

“We’re losing a whole generation of Santa Monicans,” McKeown said. The formula to stop that he said is simple: “Find work, stay in Santa Monica, and stay a part of the intergenerational community.”

For Mayor Richard Bloom the issue was “a little bit troubling” because budget restrictions limit the City’s ability to embark on any new program. “We live in age of limited resources,” Bloom said. At the same time, Bloom said, “our direction needs to be broader.”

Bloom said he would support exploring a more expanded youth work program, but whatever the final program will look like, it should be “including but not limited to hiring youth.”

Council member Pam O’Connor agreed. “There really is a limited budget to do this,” she said.
O'Connor asked City staff to assess the “efficacy” of current work programs, saying she just wants to be sure the City is “getting the best bang for the buck.”

Another constraint the hiring program might face, said City Attorney Marsha Moutrie, is legal issues of discrimination. There may be “State laws that may limit the City’s ability to target certain groups of people,” she said.

While the program is currently limited to providing jobs for youth, Councilman Ken Genser said it’s a place to start.

“When you learn to walk you take one step at a time,” Genser said. The hiring program, he said, “might be just one step we take” toward solving the problem.

One of the newly elected leaders of the Pico Neighborhood Association, Maria Loya, also wanted the focus of the program to be broader.

"The City (must) be more deliberate in creating a first source hiring program on any kind of contracts, not just with construction.” Loya said. The program, she added, should be viewed “as an economic stimulus plan for working class families in Santa Monica.”

School Board member Oscar de la Torre, the founder and director of the Pico Youth and Family Center, said the City should do whatever is necessary to solve the problem.

“I think we need everything," said de la Torre, whose center targets at-risk youth. "There is an immediate need right now.”

De la Torre added that the need is greatest in the 18 to 24 age group, the same group that has “seen a lot of the death and homicide” which has continued to plague the Pico Neighborhood throughout the years.

“The number one thing that keeps coming up is ‘I keep looking, but I can’t find a job,’” said de la Torre.

An added bonus in involving local youth in construction projects, said de La Torre, is that it would help reduce graffiti and would foster a greater sense of community.

“If they take ownership of it, they feel connected to it, they will take care of it,” de la Torre said.
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