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May 13, 2009 > Union City Moves Closer to Tackling Youth Violence and Gang Activity

Union City Moves Closer to Tackling Youth Violence and Gang Activity

By Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

In Dec 2005, Union City Council disregarded the adage, "children should be seen and not heard" and created the Youth Commission to establish communication with the City's most vulnerable citizens, the teenage population. There are 15 youth commissioners, aged 13 to 17, who advise council members on issues facing adolescents such as gangs, racial tension and violence.

In Jan 2008, the Youth Violence Prevention Coalition presented the results of a study that revealed the extent of youth violence in the city and provided some insight into the minds of the teenage population.

Of the 580 individuals surveyed (equal numbers of male and female), 84% were under 21 years old. An overwhelming 70% reported they had personally been affected by violence. When asked what they felt caused violence and confrontation among their age group, 6% said drugs, 13% cited a lack of youth activities and a staggering 48% felt gangs and racial tension were to blame. The survey concluded that Union City residents under 21 years old are increasingly personally affected by violence and, generally, feel unprotected. It was also determined that violence starts at a younger age; the average age of new gang members is 13 years and sometimes is as young as 9.

The survey's findings and concern about the rise in violent crime helped the passage of Measure UU (the $3.2 million public-safety parcel tax that guarantees $500,000 of funding for youth violence-prevention services) in Nov 2008. This has culminated in the creation of Union City's Youth & Family Services Division (YFSD) to implement the policies and plans generated by the Youth Violence Prevention & Intervention Advisory Committee (YVPIAC).

Deputy City Manager Tony Acosta is responsible for the committee and implementing its programs. The YFSD will provide crisis intervention, youth violence prevention and intervention, youth employment and other youth-and-family related services. Applications are currently being accepted and reviewed for the following new positions - two Intervention Counselors (one of whom will be fluent in both English and Spanish), Lead Outreach Worker, Street Outreach Worker, Case Manager, Youth Employment Coordinator and Family & Youth Services Manager.

The new division will be funded by Measure UU revenue and California Gang Reduction, Intervention and Prevention (CalGRIP) grant monies. When the current CalGRIP funding cycle ends on Dec 31, 2010, the committee must seek replacement funding elsewhere. Until then, the YFSD is securely funded though the City's other departments are facing budgets cuts of 20%.

According to Acosta, June 15 is the target date for the YFSD and YVPIAC to be operational. June 11 is the New Haven Unified School District's last day of school.

Consultant Stewart Wakeling is guiding the City through the process of "implementing a ceasefire type of violence reduction initiative."

Union City wants to achieve a community-wide reduction in street violence (as measured by homicides and other serious but non-fatal violent incidents), find more credible employment and educational opportunities for high-risk youth and realize reductions in recidivism of those adolescents with the highest risk of involvement in gun violence.

The City will receive data analysis on gun-related street violence and be able to identify the "highest-risk" young people. Street Outreach Workers will be fully capable of recognizing and addressing potential conflicts and tensions that would otherwise result in gun violence. Furthermore, the Outreach Workers will connect at-risk youth with services and opportunities.

The program's message, "The Violence Must Stop Now", will be relayed to the community through meetings targeted at youth. To improve attendance and offer an "in-the-trenches" opinion, it has been suggested that offenders, probationers and at-risk youth also be present.

It remains to be seen if the new division will impact the increasing violence facing Union City.

"The violence is worse than I've ever seen it. [Gangs] used to keep to themselves...now it's a free-for-all. You hear gunshots a couple of times a month," said Sylvia Castillo, a Decoto resident and married mother of two.

"The YFSD and YVPIAC should have been created long ago. I'm glad to see it's happening. The Council is finally accepting that there is a problem," she concluded.

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