By Alex Emslie
Despite a 50 percent decrease in homicides over the past three years in San Francisco, incidents of violence and murder remain unchanged in several of the city’s “hot zones,” defined by the SFPD.
One of those zones is the Mission District, a historically Latino neighborhood that has changed drastically over the past decade. As rents rise and coffee shops patronized by young professionals who are new to the neighborhood spring up, violence prevention organizations like Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth are working to keep youth off the streets and out of gangs.
HOMEY was formed in 1999 and serves people between 13 and 24 years old, the very demographic that is most involved with street crime, according to the city’s Department of Children, Youth, and Their Families.
Last year, HOMEY served 64 youths, 12 of whom were in an intensive caseworker program that was shut down this year due to a loss of funding from the DCYF. Right now, 20 young people regularly attend HOMEY’s programs.
The loss of the caseworker program hit the organization hard, and when HOMEY Director Roberto Alfaro talks about it, the frustration in his voice is noticeable. He said the ten-year-old program allowed them to do real one-on-one work with the most at-risk youths, and that it was beginning to produce real results.
Alfaro grew up in the neighborhood and has watched it change. He said the mainstream media often presents the Mission as an “up-and-coming” neighborhood with a “negative background,” which he said is sometimes a euphemism for “Latino” or “immigrant.”
“It’s a disgrace how these young people get treated,” he said.
Since the murder of Anthony Bologna and two of his sons in 2008, the crime for which Salvadoran immigrant Edwin Ramos is currently standing trial, Alfaro has seen the public take a much harsher stance against the at-risk youth he works with.
“You read the comments under stories in the LA Times and other places, and people write, ‘They should deport them all,’ and really derogatory, racist language, and you can see how criminalized young people have become,” Alfaro said. “When you see young people succeed and become leaders, we’re saving our community one person at a time. That’s violence prevention work. That’s the hopeful part.”
Who gets murdered?
According to the DCYF, 38 percent of the 98 homicide victims in 2008 were under 25 years old, and 94 percent of them had dropped out of high school before being killed.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for San Franciscans under 24, and the murder rate of the city (30 homicides for every 100,000 residents) is nearly twice the state average.
“Violence is a public health issue and a silent epidemic,” said Diana Oliva-Aroche, planning and policy manager for violence prevention and intervention at the DCYF.
According to U.S. Census data, Latinos made up just over 15 percent of San Francisco’s population in 2010 and African Americans comprised fewer than six percent. But the two groups accounted for 75 percent of referrals to the city’s juvenile justice department, according to the DCYF.
Oliva-Aroche said there are many reasons why violence remains entrenched in some neighborhoods; multi-generational gang membership, a street economy that offers a better alternative to legitimate job prospects, poverty and an abundance of guns are among them.
“You have to look at the historical trajectory of violence in these neighborhoods,” she said.
Who joins gangs?
Alfaro said there is no monolithic cause for young people to join gangs or become victims of street violence, but that many are also dealing with overarching social conditions—poverty, inequality, institutional racism and broken homes—that leave certain populations more susceptible to street violence.
Daniel Mancia, 29, said if it weren’t for programs like HOMEY, he would likely be in prison or dead. He was raised by his Salvadoran mother in Hunters Point and began hanging out around 24th and Mission streets when he was in middle school. By the time he was 13, Mancia was incarcerated in San Francisco’s juvenile justice system.
“That left me in a revolving-door cycle that was really hard to break,” he said.
Mancia’s was one of only a few Latino families in Hunters Point in the mid-nineties. As a first generation Salvadoran-American who grew up around Puerto Ricans and spoke English as a second language, Mancia said he had to defend himself in his neighborhood, so he learned how to box at Ralph Park.
“It was dangerous back then,” he said. “People were getting killed left and right by my house. As a child it was terrifying being up there. You always heard gunshots and people getting shot. Sometimes I knew them.”
When he started attending Horace Mann middle school in the Mission, Mancia was attracted to the camaraderie and safety of his crew on 24th Street, many of whom were in gangs.
“Nothing could happen to any of us because we were solid like that, and close-knit,” he said.
Mancia said he was never officially “jumped in” to a gang, and he never got a tattoo.
“When it comes to concrete affiliations, it’s very difficult to leave, and your loved ones may be at risk,” Oliva-Aroche said. “But I think people can walk away from that lifestyle. Individuals can have redemption and become better human begins. They often become the best change makers in their communities.”
Mancia has worked with the Central American Resource Center, a Mission community-based service provider that advocates for Latinos and immigrants. As part of its public health approach to building a strong community, CARECEN houses one of the few affordable outlets for former gang members to remove gang-related tattoos, which can be a long and expensive process.
Vanessa Bohm coordinates CARECEN’s Second Chance Tattoo Removal program, which currently serves 150 to 200 clients. With CARECEN’s technology, removing a tattoo can take years of treatments administered at least six weeks apart to allow the skin to heal, Bohm said, and sometimes the process gets interrupted by other factors in clients’ lives.
She said the demand for the service is much greater than what CARECEN can provide.
After several of his friends were killed, and two received life sentences for crimes he doesn’t believe they committed, Mancia decided to change.
“I had an epiphany of some sort, that my friends might never come home, and I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m never coming home,” he said.
Mancia now volunteers at HOMEY and other youth violence prevention programs offering youth alternatives to the street. He is pursuing an associate’s degree from City College of San Francisco.
“Education helped me grow, and it helped me climb out of the hole I sunk myself into,” Mancia wrote in an email. “It’s the whole reason why I am still free and alive.”
To use people like Ramos to push an anti-immigrant political agenda will only increase street violence, Alfaro said.
“Harsher immigration enforcement on the streets will inevitably cause a higher volume of street violence,” he said, and Oliva-Aroche agreed.
“Did the Ramos case happen because we were loose on immigration? No,” she said. “Gun crime and street violence started here and has migrated south. Violence transcends borders.”
Instead, Alfaro, Oliva-Aroche and Bohm said increasing access to services for undocumented immigrants would positively affect the city’s street violence.
“This is real to me. If we can help young people get a green card, I could get a bunch of young people jobs. That would really help,” he said. “Not enough emphasis is placed on what immigrants and undocumented immigrants do that’s positive.”
CARECEN has lost funding over the past few years too, Bohm said, and the cuts have impacted the organization’s youth violence prevention work. If the nation put a higher priority on helping youth instead of penalizing them, real progress could be made in reducing violence, she said.
The DCYF received 139 requests for funding totaling close to $35 million in its last round of granting, Oliva-Aroche said, but the department only had about $15.5 million to distribute. The DCYF conducted 31 interviews and eight community input sessions prior to the granting process to identify priorities that would most impact re-offending, Oliva-Aroche said.
“If you gave folks legitimate employment and got them stable housing, they would prop up the economy, have more resources and be farther from the poverty line,” Bohm said. “And you would see a great reduction in gang activity.”
Bohm said that changes to the city’s Sanctuary Policy in the wake of the Ramos case do nothing for security and betray an important trust between law enforcement and San Francisco’s immigrant communities.
“There are cases of domestic violence where women are attacked, report it, and they suffer the consequences,” she said. “That does nothing for security.”