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$2.9 Million Awarded to Gang Program


The multiracial sea of 700 supporters, most of them wearing the rainbow-colored T-shirts of the Hope in Youth program, had packed the Los Angeles County supervisors meeting room to overflowing. Another 100 or so, turned away at the door, stood on the Hall of Administration steps, alternately praying and listening to the applause resounding from the central room.

Finally, they heard the verdict: At the urging of Gloria Molina, the supervisors had voted 4 to 1 to provide the $2.9 million that Hope in Youth had requested to launch its gang-prevention program.

The allocation is the largest ever for a gang-prevention program in Los Angeles, but the funds will be held until a matching pledge is received from other government agencies.

"This is only the first step," Molina told elated supporters after the vote. "We've got to include the federal government, the city government and the state government. But it can happen."

It was a critical step for Hope in Youth, whose creation was announced in March by Cardinal Roger M. Mahony, Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, with the backing of seven other religious denominations and four Industrial Areas Foundation organizations.

Stressing prevention rather than intervention, the coalition proposes strengthening families, schools and communities to counter the gang-related violence racking Los Angeles County.

The supervisors' decision made them the first to put their wallets behind their pledges of support for Hope in Youth. The program is seeking $2.5 million from the city of Los Angeles, almost $4 million from the state, $6 million from the federal government and $4 million from private sources to fund the first year of its family outreach teams. In all, Hope in Youth's budget calls for $290 million over five years.

"The next step will be using this to turn up the pressure on Mayor (Tom) Bradley and the city," said Rebecca Gifford, an organizer for the IAF's United Neighborhoods Organization (UNO).

Hope in Youth's leaders say that Gov. Pete Wilson has agreed to meet with Sen. John Seymour (R-Calif.), Bradley and Mahony to discuss funding. But no date has been set for that meeting, which could determine the program's future.

"We wouldn't do anything that wouldn't make an impact. We don't want to have just a neighborhood program," said Lou Negrete, a member of Hope in Youth's strategy team and a senior leader of UNO. "To make it a serious effort we have to fund people to do it. We have to have paid professionals."

Hope in Youth's leaders contend that their program deserves funding because it offers a fresh approach to an old problem. This "is a support system," said Brother Modesto Leon, director of Catholic Charities' Soledad Enrichment Action program and one of the prime movers behind Hope in Youth. "It's not anti-gang. It's giving youth an alternative to joining gangs."

Last year 771 people were killed in Los Angeles County in a bloody spiral of gang-related violence. Community leaders estimate that more than 100,000 county youths--double the number just five years ago--are active in nearly 1,000 gangs. About 60,000 Latinos make up about 450 gangs countywide, according to Los Angeles County sheriff's officials.

While a welter of social factors, such as poverty and racism, drive youths toward gangs, Hope in Youth's leaders cite shattered family lives, disillusionment with education and a need to belong as key elements contributing to gang membership.

The program targets youths who have not yet entered gangs as well as the 80% of gang members whom community leaders describe as not really hard-core.

"It is important how (Hope in Youth officials) define not only the roots of the gang problem but how they define who is at risk," UCLA psychology professor Armando Morales said. He recommended focusing on youths whose relatives have previously been involved in gangs, citing UCLA studies showing that 42% of Latino gang members and 60% of Latinas followed in the footsteps of older family members.

At the heart of Hope in Youth is an ambitious plan for 160 Family Outreach Teams to counsel at-risk youths, offer parent effectiveness training and empower parents to improve community schools. The teams would work out of neighborhood churches and be supported by padrinos from the congregations--godfather role models who would also help youths find jobs in the community.

At the same time, the program would build 80 alternative "primary centers" for children in kindergarten through second grade and would urge voters to focus government's attention on the problems of the young.

Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block endorsed the program, saying its emphasis on prevention complements existing strategies. "I've been trying to get the word out that law enforcement, the criminal justice system, is a measure of last resort," he said. "This really is something different."

But not all community leaders agree that Hope in Youth's approach will be effective.

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