March 9, 2007

Hard Work and A Lot of Money

Gang Intervention Part II
By Raymond R. Beltran

Two months ago, a young Latino male staggered into Glad iator School of Boxing in South Crest after having been beaten up at the local park. He bled on the canvas in the ring because of a stab wound in the back. Gym patrons called 911 and then gave the young man a cellular phone to call his mother.

For Gladiator owner, Travis Stocking, that was but one violent incident among a few he’s seen there. He says you can’t get any closer to the street life than that.

A makeshift poster at the front desk reads ‘Overcoming Gangs.’ He says his gym acts as a sanctuary for youth teetering between staying alive and being swallowed by a climate of gang violence.

Gladiators get approximately sixty youth treading through its doors per day, says the owner, sixty percent Latino and forty percent black.

Gladiator School of Boxing owner, Travis Stocking

Stocking, whose name is descriptive of his bulky size, set up shop in South Crest, also known as Shell Town, three years ago.

“Boxing lures kids in whether it’s because they’ve been bullied, or they want to learn to fight, or some want to learn the sport of it,” says Stocking. “When they get in here and learn the program, it’s not just to go and create violence. They learn respect and how to treat people.”

Asked why he created the business and he alludes to the word ‘redemption.’

He’s a twenty five year veteran of gang warfare in this small neighborhood, spent nine years in prison for assault, battery and robbery, and declines to say what gang he’s from.

“If I say it, it’s like glorifying that set,” he says. “I don’t want to do that because I used to ride around and help destroy this community. Now, I’m trying to build it back up.”

Between two and four o’clock in the afternoon, he buses in his young patrons to the gym. The children pay $35 a month, and the adults, $60, but according to Stocking, most don’t pay a thing.

Outside of the gym, he says he and his wife help people sell homes with their real estate licenses and their sales commission used to be enough to keep the gym afloat. He’s provided twelve Dell PC computers and his total monthly charges add up to approximately $4,200 a month.

But now, with a stagnant housing market, Stocking says he’s struggling to sustain the business. He finds himself teetering on the financial red line and has cut back on activities, like the Family Day barbeques that he used to organize in 2006 and the mock funerals that, symbolically, put gang violence six feet under at Greenwood Mortuary.

And although his gym isn’t glorious, it has the necessities for someone to lift weights, spar, write a resume or do homework, but mostly, find refuge.

Stocking says he’s attended several community meetings on gang issues, all of which have yet to produce results. He’s finished with attending them and says his meetings are now in front of his shop.

Asked if he knew about the San Diego City Gang Intervention and Prevention Commission, he replies he knows of some members, but like most residents, he doesn’t know their function.

In October of last year, Mayor Jerry Sanders created a gang commission in response to what seemed to be a prevalent issue, though police statistics report gang crime is down. For many, the name is confusing, and for the commission leaders, it simply causes more confusion than anything.

“We’re not a service provider,” declares the commission’s chairman, Pastor Harry Cooper of the Southeast Community Presbyterian Church. “Our task, as a commission, is not to actually, ourselves, provide that service [intervention] but to become aware of how gangs are impacting the community and to see who’s dealing with gangs positively … in order to make recommendations to the city on policies and procedures that they may need to engage in.”

Some residents find out the hard way by attending meetings for immediate answers.

The commission is still in the midst of seeking out the dynamics of the gang community. Their make up suggest that the city has a general idea of what issues contribute to a gang’s existence.

There are seventeen appointment-only seats on the commission, and they are filled by entities like SANDAG, the San Diego Unified School District, the police department, a workforce partnership and public health organization, and two reformed gang members.

All but the executive director positions are voluntary. Lynn Sharpe-Underwood, the executive director, says the commission’s annual budget is $187,114. Around two thirds of that pays her salary when asked how much money the city is spending to directly create solutions, commission leaders say ‘zero.’

“So, we’re not funding programs, but we are going to be researching and evaluating programs,” Sharpe Underwood says.

Currently, the commission’s still “getting a grassroots feel for what’s happening in the community,” by interviewing at-risk communities throughout San Diego, what they call their “work plan.”

At a community meeting at St. Jude’s Church in Shell Town last month, the commission made an action to support the Safe Passages Program at Montgomery and Gompers Middle Schools, a program created in Los Angeles to bus kids into their schools who fear crossing gang territory.

But, Sharpe Underwood says, even without the commission’s support, the program would still exist, no additional funding. They support programs to be included into the city’s ‘strategic plan,’ a plan that is supposed to be produced Wednesday, March 15.

Without the city funding programs though, residents say it’s all lip service.

A Shell Town resident, Eva Vargas, who’s raising a fourteen year old, at-risk grandson, says their intentions are good, but their findings will merely be shuffled away and forgotten. It’s easily said, but honestly hard to say at this stage in the process.

Ramon “Chunky” Sanchez, a veteran community activist, was part of a more hands-on approach to gang intervention in 1983, called the San Diego Streets Youth Program, he remembers. Sanchez was the executive director with six full time paid counselors, half black and half Latino.

Their group was created by the city but modeled after a parallel Philadelphia program that called for direct response in the community.

They organized barrio clean-ups in Logan Heights and Del Sol with at-risk youth, engaged rival gangs in baseball games and, Sanchez says, tried to create a sense of community pride.

The program dissolved four years later, he says, due to political bickering and the city’s territorial jurisdictions, which ultimately restricted them from solving gang feuds. He says it also turned more into “a law enforcement type of profile.”

“If you want to bust more kids, then, hire more cops,” Sanchez says. “But if you’re really interested in helping, then your foot soldiers have to work with the kids … and you got to spend money.”

He says their annual budget was $250,000 for employee salaries and that a report was released by the San Diego Union, exhibiting the city’s 50% decrease in gang violence.

City Attorney Mike Aguirre organized the similar San Diego Crime Commission in 1981. They still exist, but for a struggling barrio today, they’re close to invisible.

At that time, a younger Aguirre asserted that a prevention program for an issue of this magnitude can’t survive without an annual $200,000 budget. That was twenty six years ago.

He was not available to comment on the current gang commission.

One of San Diego’s largest intervention programs, the Tariq Khamisa Foundation (TKF), was started in 1995 in the aftermath of a gang related shooting that affected two families tragically, when college student Tariq Khamisa was gunned down by fourteen year old Tony Hicks, who’s currently serving a twenty five to life sentence.

Today, TKF has served 62,693 San Diego youth between 1996 and 2006, and 8,346,000 nationally with a ten year old system in place, like youth questionnaires, that track their progress with the community.

As a non-profit organization, they hire five paid employees, some bilingual, and an executive director. Their four part program is integrated into at-risk campuses, like King Chavez Elementary, Lemon Grove Middle and now Perkins Elementary in Logan Heights, where families engage in four-part programs called Violence Impact, the Circle of Peace, The Parent Peace Coalition and Ending the Cycle of Violence.

They’ve created a donation program called Seeds of Hope, where 473 sponsors commit to donate up to $10,000 annually to pay salaries and buy books, videos and now multi-media equipment for lectures. Their budget this year, $463,000.

Executive Director Lisa Grogan says TKF nominated co-founder Azim Khamisa, father of slain Tariq, to be on the city’s gang commission but he was not selected.

In 2005, the city manager’s office released a report stating that a gang commission would have “no fiscal impact to the city of San Diego.”

Will an unfunded commission provide results? “Probably not,” TKF’s Grogan responds. “You need to have people vested and responsible. If it didn’t cost tax-payers money, nobody’s going to care to attend their meetings.”

“If we don’t implement their (the gang commission’s) recommendations, then what’s the point? It absolutely needs to be funded, because as taxpayers, we’re going to ask for accountability from those folks.”

Activists and residents alike say they see more money being siphoned from community recreation than being invested.

In 2004, amidst the city’s fiscal woes, the city was proposing to cut libraries, swimming pools, parks and recreation to save $26.9 million in the annual budget. Parents were in fear of paying $1,500 per child a year for 6-to-6 programs. National City passed a sales tax increase by running a campaign on restoring recreational services of the same nature, but they have a gang injunction that includes two pages of documented gang members.

At this point, a community that has never seen a city willing to contribute to a solution will remain skeptical to new faces, a battle that Sharpe-Underwood says she faces when trying to engage community activism.

“We have more work to do, obviously,” she says.

“Everything we do should give the exit strategy before [young] lives are taken,” says gang commission chair, Pastor Cooper.

Eva Vargas (featured in Part I) is planning a neighborhood cleanup day and she’s inviting veteran gang members. For Stocking, Gladiator gym is his business and his business is scooping kids up for exercise and intervention, on his own dime. He’s not attending anymore meetings.

“You can have as many meetings as you want, but it’s not going to help us with what’s happening on the streets,” he says. “Put your money where your mouth is.”

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