Thursday, March 27, 2008

El Paso officials offer lessons learned


A focus on neighborhoods took center stage at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Santa Barbara on Thursday evening, where a delegation of city leaders from El Paso, Texas, described strategies they are using to address not only youth violence, but overarching community issues as well.
The group will meet with local elected officials and community leaders Friday to continue that discussion. Thursday evening, mostly concerned parents and community members packed the church hall, listening as the visiting trio outlined their holistic approach to healing their city’s ills.

However, Mark Alvarado, a Santa Barbara native who now works as the coordinator of El Paso’s Neighborhood Services department, made it clear from the start that they didn’t have all the answers to Santa Barbara’s problems.
“We’re here just to share our ideas,” he said. “We’re not here to tell you this is how it’s done.”
He then launched into a description of El Paso’s bottom-up approach to revitalize neighborhoods that have been neglected for decades, even half a century in some cases.
“We have some very, very poor and distressed neighborhoods,” Alvarado said.
In some, 70 percent of the residents don’t have a diploma or GED. Many have alarming dropout rates, topping 50 percent at times.
In the city of approximately 620,000, 76 percent are Latino and the median household income is $32,100, first-term City Council representative Steve Ortega said.
And while El Paso, across the border from Juarez, Mexico, is a major drug corridor, Ortega said it has consistently been ranked as one of the safest cities in the nation with a population greater than half a million.
“There’s a very strong sense of family,” he said, largely reducing the number of neglected youth.
To further that sense of family, city leaders — elected by district — chose to break the city into recognized neighborhoods and create associations tasked with improving their particular segment of the community.
Each council representative spends time at each of the neighborhood association meetings in their district, listening to concerns and offering advice. It empowers residents, develops consensus before action is taken, and engages the community in local affairs, Ortega said.
“It really provides a good opportunity for the community to interface with their elected officials,” he said.
For those neighborhoods struggling with poverty and crime, the city held a series of public meetings to develop revitalization strategies that range from immediate to long-term.
“Our role as a city is just to facilitate and lead,” Alvarado said. “Without us being the glue, it seems like nothing would get done.”
Solutions varied from establishing neighborhood watch programs to offering incentives to get junked cars out of yards. A neighborhood improvement program also sinks $125,000 into each area and allows members of the neighborhood association apply for funding for community projects.
Essentially, Alvarado said, the city is getting residents to take pride and get involved in their neighborhood.
But, as El Paso County Attorney Jose Rodriguez pointed out, collaboration from the start is key.
“All of these goals and strategies up here were developed with community input,” he said. “…You can’t address youth issues without input from all the different stakeholders.”
Rodriguez, who has held his elected position for 16 years and handles juvenile prosecution in El Paso, took the youth issue head on, focusing his presentation largely on the merits of a civil gang injunction.
City officials, in dealing with one of the most violent organized gangs in the nation, established a two-year safety zone in downtown El Paso, allowing police to detain known gang members for violations as seemingly innocuous as using a cell phone or profane language. As a result, Rodriguez said, crime dropped 12 percent overall.
However, he stressed the importance of recognizing that a civil injunction is not the cure-all solution.
“It’s just one tool in the arsenal,” he said.
And getting the backing of the neighborhoods and community as a whole is critical.
“If the community is not supportive, then I don’t think you can be successful with a gang injunction,” Rodriguez said.
County Supervisor Salud Carbajal, one of the elected officials who will meet further with the delegation from El Paso on Friday, attended the community forum and thanked the trio for offering their ideas.
“We can never have too much information on an issue that is often evasive to get our arms around,” he said.
Other notable attendees included Police Chief Cam Sanchez and Don Olson, director of special projects for the city. Olson, speaking after the presentation had ended, said he is very interested in the neighborhood approach developed by El Paso officials.
“We are looking for ways to engage people in the neighborhoods,” he said, “to get them more involved.”

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