Photo: Youth in San Francisco’s Mission shown on the website of Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY), a violence-prevention program.
SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--Roberto Alfaro has become the exception in a city of transplants. He grew up in San Francisco’s Mission District, a historically immigrant and working-class neighborhood, and remains there, although the place has changed. Over the last decade ago, he’s watched the neighborhood morph into a destination for young professionals, with a taste for the hip and money to spend.
The demographic changes, said Alfaro, have come with a shift in the public’s perception of the neighborhood’s Latino residents, particularly youth. Young people are of special interest to Alfaro, who directs Homies Organizing the Mission to Empower Youth (HOMEY), a violence-prevention program formed in 1999 to serve some of the Mission’s most at-risk youth, many of whom are Latino and come from immigrant families.
“Not enough emphasis is placed on what immigrants do that’s positive,” he laments. “It’s a disgrace to see how these young people get treated.”
Profile: A HOMEY
Daniel Mancia, 29, said if it weren't for programs like HOMEY, he would either be in prison or dead. Mancia was raised by his Salvadoran mother in Hunters Point and began hanging out around 24th Street and Mission when he was in middle school. By age 13, Mancia was incarcerated at San Francisco's juvenile hall.
"That left me in a revolving-door cycle that was really hard to break," he said.
There were only a few Latino families living in Hunters Point in the mid-1990s, he said. A first generation Salvadoran American who grew up around Puerto Ricans and spoke English as a second language, Mancia said he had to defend himself in his neighborhood, so he learned how to box.
"It was dangerous back then," he recalls. "People were getting killed left and right by my house. As a child it was terrifying being up there. You always heard gunshots." Sometimes he knew the victims.
When Mancia started attending Horace Mann Middle School in the Mission, he was attracted to the camaraderie and safety of his crew on 24th Street, many of whom were in gangs. Although Mancia said he was never officially "jumped in" to the gang, and never got a tattoo, he felt protected.
"Nothing could happen to any of us because we were solid like that, and close-knit," he said.
Today, Mancia volunteers at HOMEY and other youth violence-prevention programs, drawing on his experience to offer youth alternatives to the street. He is also pursuing an associate's degree from City College of San Francisco.
"It's very difficult to leave, but — I think people can walk away from that lifestyle," said Oliva-Aroche. "Individuals can have redemption and become better human beings. They often become the best change makers in their communities."
For Mancia, the turning point came after several of his friends were killed, and two others were given life sentences for crimes Mancia doesn't believe they committed. Nevertheless, he took it as a sign that he needed to make a change.
"I had an epiphany of some sort, that my friends might never come home, and I don't want to be in a situation where I'm never coming home."
— Alex Emslie
The negative perception of the Mission’s Latino youth, he said, has only gotten worse since the murder of Anthony Bologna and two of his sons in 2008, a crime for which Salvadoran immigrant Edwin Ramos is currently standing trial.
Since news of the murder and accompanying photos of the young suspect--Ramos was 21 when Bologna was killed--hit the front page of the San Francisco Chronicle, Alfaro said he’s seen the public take a much harsher stance against the type of young people he works with.
The negative perception hasn’t been helped by a series of recent high-profile federal trials of MS-13 gang members from the Mission District. Many of the accused and convicted in those trials were still juveniles at the time their alleged crimes, often brutal and brazen, were committed on the streets of San Francisco.
Even though only a few individuals committed the killings, dozens of young adults have been removed from the community--incarcerated or deported--because they were affiliated with the perpetrators. They were prosecuted under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations (RICO) Act, enacted in 1970 to wipe out large crime syndicates, such as the Italian Mafia.
“You read the comments under stories in the L.A. Times and other places, and people write, 'They should deport them all,' and really derogatory, racist language. And you can see how criminalized young people have become,” Ramos said.
Also since the killings, HOMEY has also seen its annual city-funded budget shrink. Last year, HOMEY served 64 youth, 12 of whom were in an intensive case-management program that was shut down this year, due to a funding cut by the Department of Children Youth and Families (DCYF). Today, only 20 young people regularly attend HOMEY programs.
Ironically, said Alfaro, the need for violence prevention and youth services in the Mission is more critical than ever, despite the changing face of the neighborhood and evolving public attitudes toward immigrant youth.
Crime reports issued by the city appear to back up his assertion. Although the overall homicide rate in San Francisco has been in decline--the total number of murders in the city dropped by 50 percent over the last three years--the trend doesn’t hold true for city neighborhoods identified by police as “hot zones,” such as the Mission. In those neighborhoods, young people of color are overwhelmingly among those killed on the streets.
Kids of Color Most at Risk for Violence
The number of homicides per year in San Francisco shrank from roughly 100 in 2006 to about 50 in 2011. But a 2011 study by DCYF found that homicides rates had not decreased in six city neighborhoods: the Mission, Bay View Hunter’s Point, Visitation Valley, Tenderloin, SOMA and Western Addition.
The DCYF report shows that 38 percent of the 98 homicide victims committed in 2008 were under age 25, and almost all (94 percent) were high school dropouts.
Homicide is the leading cause of death for San Franciscans under 24, and the city’s murder rate of 30 per 100,000 residents is nearly twice the state average.
“Violence is a public health issue and a silent epidemic,” said Diana Oliva-Aroche, DCYF’s planning and policy manager for violence prevention and intervention.
In 2010, Latinos made up just over 15 percent of San Francisco's population, U.S. Census data show and African Americans constituted almost 6 percent. But DCYF reveals the two groups accounted for 75 percent of referrals to the city's juvenile justice department.
Oliva-Aroche said there are many reasons why violence remains entrenched in some neighborhoods. Among them are multigenerational gang membership, a street economy offering better pay than legitimate job prospects, poverty--and an abundance of guns.
“You have to look at the historical trajectory of violence in these neighborhoods,” she said. Overarching reasons why certain populations become more susceptible to violence, Alfaro said, are poverty, inequality, institutional racism and broken homes.
Misguided Public Reaction
In 2008, political fallout from the Bologna murder caused then-mayor Gavin Newsom to amend San Francisco’s Sanctuary City policy--a city law that restricts local law enforcement from cooperating with federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)--to allow the handover of undocumented juvenile offenders to federal immigration authorities.
That change has since been partially reversed by Mayor Ed Lee, who has declared that only convicted youth can be handed over to ICE. Regardless, Alfaro and Oliva-Aroche agree that anti-immigrant laws will do nothing to decrease youth-on-youth street violence. The gang problem, they say, is not an immigrant problem but an American one.
“Did the [Bologna murder] happen because we were loose on immigration? No,” she said. Oliva-Aroche explained that gang-related gun crime and street violence started in the U.S. and migrated south. She added, “The Sanctuary City policy helps prevent violence. It's important for law enforcement to have a working relationship with the community.”
Instead of deporting young people, said Oliva-Aroche, the city should try increasing access to services for undocumented immigrants if it wants to see street violence decline in neighborhood like the Mission.
Also in the Mission, the CARECEN Central American Resource Center lost its funding for the city’s only tattoo-removal program. Vanessa Bohm, who coordinates the program, believes that prioritizing law enforcement over social services is a misguided approach to public safety.
“If you gave folks legitimate employment and got them stable housing, they would prop up the economy, have more resources and be farther from the poverty line,” Bohm said. “And you would see a great reduction in gang activity.”
Overall, during their most recent round of grant applications, DCYF received 139 requests for funding from local nonprofits, totaling close to $35 million--but the department only had about $15.5 million to distribute, according to Oliva-Aroche.
“This is real to me. If we can help young people get a green card, I could get a bunch of them jobs,” Alfaro said. “That would really help.”
The loss of funding for case management hit HOMEY hard. Alfaro talks about it with frustration in his voice. He said the program allowed them to do real one-on-one work with the most at-risk youth, and the 10-year-old program was beginning to produce real results.
But HOMEY will continue to follow its guiding mission of youth empowerment, turning kids on the street into mentors and community leaders.
Alfaro continued, “When you see young people succeed and become leaders--that's violence prevention work. We’re saving our community one person at a time. That's the hopeful part.”
Alex Emslie studies journalism at San Francisco State University. His reporting is part of a special ‘Stories From the Diaspora’ series profiling the lives of immigrants across California and beyond.