This is the second in a series of stories about the impact of gang activity in Mountain View. Other installments will focus on what schools and nonprofit groups are doing to combat the problem.
Last Wednesday, 200 Latino youths and parents filled the basement of St Joseph Church with a mission in mind. With council members Tom Means and Ronit Bryant in attendance, the group demanded that the city build a teen center to help keep kids out of trouble after school.
The meeting was organized by Peninsula Interfaith Action, or PIA, and a newly formed group called Youth United for Action and Involvement. It kicked off with a prayer from Pastor Bob Moran.
"God, please inspire our leaders and give us some plans," Moran said. "We promise to cooperate between us and with our council to realize these ideas. Amen."
Means and Bryant, who had no idea how large the meeting would be until a few days beforehand, are council youth committee members along with Margaret Abe-Koga, who was unable to attend.
Many observers of local gang activity say there has been a recent uptick in gang activity. PIA member Irene Yoshida said she and others researched the problem, talking to police, local nonprofits and hundreds of community members.
"We have learned that gangs are a powerful force in our city," said Yoshida. Importantly, the hours after school are the time kids are most likely to engage in gang violence, she said, and a solution is to establish a good teen center where high school students will want to go.
The city's small youth center on Escuela Avenue closed last year for minor renovations. Funding for its programming was cut dramatically five years ago, the same time gang activity began a steady rise that continued through 2006.
PIA leaders said they have watched the city budget grow, but there have been few benefits for the city's youth. This year the city has $32 million in unallocated funds, though there are plenty of ideas for spending it.
"We don't mean repairing the small house on Escuela Avenue. That only serves middle schoolers" Yoshida said.
A lack of outreach to Spanish-speaking families was cited in the presentation. Speakers noted that Mountain View has only one interpreter for 12,791 Spanish-speaking people in the city, and that 2,307 families qualified for financial assistance for recreation programs, but only 200 used it. The city's annual recreation program guide is sent to over 40,000 homes but none are printed in Spanish. Means said the city was working on reformatting the guide and translating parts of it into Spanish.
Yoshida rallied the audience by shouting, "Do our youth deserve the best?" to which there was applause.
"We are not asking for things that are not possible," said PIA member Gabriel Ventura though an interpreter.
Rosemary Bracero, a trustee on the Mountain View Whisman school district board, said she was "stunned by the gathering."
"If we don't have safety, there is no learning," she said.
There were some awkward moments when Means and Bryant were asked to commit to working with the group, one issue at a time. At one point, Bryant turned the tables a bit and asked that the group commit to working with the city. She also encouraged the audience to call her with their concerns.
"It's very important to me to have a teen center," Bryant said. "Even if you have a lot of money, it takes time."
Bryant reported back to the City Council on Tuesday, saying that it may be time to start work on a community center. City officials say it's unlikely a teen center will be built in the near future, but a community center, which could hold a teen center, has been in the works since the late 1990s.
James Teixeira, recreation manager, said the city's teen center programming has been temporarily moved to the senior center on Escuela and the community center at Rengstorff Park. About 30 middle-school-aged kids walk to the programs after school, which is about the maximum it can handle, he said.
The city is also pursuing public comment for an update to its recreation plan, and Teixeira encouraged teen center advocates to speak at upcoming meetings.