The word "islands" conjures up images of tropical beaches, sun-warmed sand and colorful drinks with umbrella stirrers. But in some Orange County circles, it means crowded neighborhoods, the threat of rising crime and fewer services.
Some of these "islands"--unincorporated residential neighborhoods surrounded by cities--are getting new attention from county government. In great part that's thanks to Supervisor Cynthia P. Coad, the new board chair. She's long been concerned that these islands get short-sticked in seeing tax dollars at work for them.
So when county crime-prevention specialists recently came up with $10 million in funds under a new state law aimed at juvenile crime prevention, it was no surprise that $560,000 of that was aimed at six of these county islands in lower-income neighborhoods.
Now the job is to make sure the money is spent effectively.
"We want to be a help, not a hindrance to these communities," said Colleene Preciado, the chief deputy probation officer over special services, who helped prepare the proposal for state funds. "[If] we go in there like we know it all, it won't do anybody any good."
In their funding proposal, county officials said the "combination of isolation from community services and poverty make[s] these areas vulnerable to street gangs." The highly touted drop in crime across Orange County has not reached some of these islands, where some people believe crime is actually on the rise.
And even worse, four identified Orange County gangs call some of these islands their home base.
The six target islands: El Modena, in Orange; Midway City, in Westminster; Garden Grove and Stanton islands; Southwest Anaheim; and La Colonia, a long-established, five-street neighborhood north of Katella Avenue near Gilbert Street in Anaheim.
El Modena, Midway City and even tiny La Colonia have their own community centers. A top goal with the new crime-prevention funds is to bring a community center to Southwest Anaheim, one of the largest of these unincorporated neighborhoods.
"It's hard to bring a community together without a central location," said Alicia Basurto, a gang-prevention specialist for the nonprofit Community Services Program (CSP), which has been working intensely in most of these islands.
That's something that Ann Lanza of Midway City can agree with. She's been a volunteer at the Community Center there for eight years.
"I don't know what some people would do with themselves without this center," she said. "They're down here at least twice a week, many of them."
But Midway City is an area of long-term residents, many of them seniors, and the area's juvenile problems are not as intense as in some other targeted islands. And in those, said Basurto, it has sometimes been a struggle to get residents to trust the social workers and probation officers who have come to work among them. Especially in the past year, when Coad's demands led to stepped-up services in places like El Modena and La Colonia.
The community centers are run by a separate nonprofit agency, the Community Development Council. But also helping out besides CSP are the YMCA, St. Joseph Hospital and the Probation Community Action Assn., a support group. Now these community centers have computers, tutorial programs for teens, health programs for seniors and classes aimed at parents.
"It doesn't do any good to reach kids if you don't also reach the parents," said Max Madrid, a Community Services Program gang-prevention supervisor. "A lot of them have no idea what their kids are up to."
But Madrid echoes the probation department that this new infusion of funds must be accompanied by some gingerly placed footsteps. There's a need to work with the community, he theorizes, so that they are a part of the solution, or they won't trust you.
Besides a new community center for Southwest, county officials will try to concentrate efforts on upgrading services to the Stanton and Garden Grove islands, which also have no community centers. The county wants to make sure all the unincorporated islands see teens get leadership programs, career training, literacy help and even job placement.
Funds will also be used to boost the number of personnel working in these unincorporated areas. There will be a coordinator for all six islands; probation officers, for the first time, for several islands; and three new county health workers.
If this seems like a lot of cash for select neighbors, Preciado reminds us that improvements in the islands will spill over to make things better for surrounding cities.
For people like you and me.
I happen to live very near two of these unincorporated areas and drive through them all the time. Their youth go to school with my children. Seems to me it's money well spent.
My guess is the new funds won't stop the gangs. But maybe it will slow them down. And help some young people who need a boost.
Jerry Hicks' column appears Monday and Thursday. Readers may reach Hicks by calling (714) 966-7789 or e-mail to email@example.com.
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Where the Money Will Go
The county has targeted six unincorporated "islands," where lower-income neighborhoods face a threat of rising crime, for $560,000 in funding from its new $10 million state crime prevention grant.
Source: Orange County Probation Department