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Article 4 of 11-Part Series
Local Non-Profits Struggle to Keep Kids Off Streets
By Ben Hubbard
It was a new habit for someone who used to avoid the neighborhood's main thoroughfare because "that's where everybody got shot."
Now, he said, some of the people he used to see at the gym are dead and he sees their pictures on memorial shirts that say, "rest in peace."
Despite a number of organizations trying to keep teenagers occupied, there are simply too few for the neighborhood's 2,715 youths who are between 15 and 19 years old. Moreover, many kids involved in one group are also active in others.
So, many spend their idle hours outside, where they are more likely to be lured into the neighborhood's rampant drug and gang activity, residents said. The numbers demonstrate the risks: some 23 percent of the teens referred to the city's juvenile probation department in 2005 were from the Bayview-Hunters Point zip code, according to the department's annual report. This was twice as many as from any other part of San Francisco.
"What you're doing is taking kids who, if they had something to do, would be okay," said James McElroy, program director at the Bayview Foundation. "But instead you leave them with no place to go, and idle hands around here find negative things to do."
McElroy, who has worked in the Bayview for 24 years, said few kids from the neighborhood feel connected to their schools and instead develop affiliations with local gangs. Many used to spend time at local city gyms, he said, but the two most important have been closed in the past year.
Between 75 and 100 kids a day went to the Joseph Lee Recreation Center in downtown Bayview, residents said, and even more attended special events such as basketball games. The San Francisco Recreation and Park Department closed Joseph Lee in February of this year for renovation and won't reopen it until December 2007, according a city status report.
James said the decision to close the gym failed to consider the area's youth.
"Sure the city is remodeling the gym, but that's not doing the teenagers who are teenagers currently any good," he said. "You'll have a whole generation of teenagers with no place to go."
The Milton Meyer center in Hunters Point, which also occupied between 75 and 100 youths a day, was also operated by the city before closing at the end of 2005 and reopening in January of this year as a new clubhouse for the Boys and Girls Club of San Francisco.
"The Milton Meyer center was not well run," said Martha Nichols of the Boys and Girls Club. "It was not a safe place." Nichols added that drug sales in and around the center were common, so the city turned it over to the Boys and Girls Club, which is renovating the building.
The Recreation and Park Department could not be reached for comment on its reason for closing the gyms.
James Holley, clubhouse supervisor, said the center is open to anyone, but interested youths must fill out an application and their parents must sign liability forms. This is often enough to keep kids away, he said. Moreover, a sizeable number of applications are voided because parents refuse to give their phone numbers.
Some find these regulations too restrictive.
"Milton Meyers was open to anybody and everybody from the community," said Takai Tyler, executive director of Hunters Point Family, an umbrella organization offering a number of teen programs. Many local organizations ran activities out of the two facilities, which gave them access to at-risk teenagers just coming by to hang out.
Such teens won't go to the Boys and Girls Club, Tyler said, making it harder for non-profits to make contact with them.
Sgt. Chris Martinez, who trained as a rookie officer in the Bayview 16 years ago and returned six years ago after working elsewhere in the city, was skeptical that recreation centers keep kids out of trouble.
"People seem to think that if you give these kids this or that they'll stop hanging out on street corners," she said. "But you can give some of these kids everything in the world and they're still going it hang out on street corners."
The real problem, she argued, is the absence of parents who discipline their children and the lack of youths who choose to forego the ghetto lifestyle.
The area's non-profits, however, say youth activities steer kids away from crime.
"There are still so many kids who aren't being reached," said Whitney Wright of the Healing Arts Center. "So we are trying to reach out to the kids who are not involved."
|© 2006 UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism|