La Habra’s Teens Help Turn Things Around
In the early 1990s, the City of La Habra was experiencing rising numbers of drive-by shootings and homicides. The city ranked second in Orange County for gang-related shootings. The increased violence was attributed to several factors, including a lack of organized recreation programs for youth and a recent influx of gang members from outside the area. In response, a concerned group of community members formed a task force to work with the city to address the problem.
The task force identified a number of areas on which to focus its efforts and the city’s resources. The task force realized there had been little information coming from the city’s youth to help guide policy-makers.This was a critical issue because many of the problems the city was experiencing were youth related. The city’s youth population represented a broad range of cultural and economic backgrounds.
Working With Youth to Identify and Solve Problems
The task force solicited input from the city’s young residents about how their needs could best be addressed and sought suggestions on how to reduce the level of gang violence. This led to the creation of a Youth Advisory Committee (YAC), which provided a way for youth and teens to engage in dialogue with the task force, city departments and the city council.
The objective was to encourage open communication between young people and adults. The ensuing discussions revealed several key issues:
- Student-to-student intimidation was a problem for many young people;
- A lack of organized activity after school was the major reason for many kids’ involvement with criminal and gang activities;
- Underage drinking was a problem;
- The city offered a very limited number of communitywide special events in which young people could participate;
- Park facilities were run-down and dilapidated; and
- Teens did not have a place to go.
Furthermore, the community’s youth were unhappy about the types of businesses in town (adult theatres and numerous liquor stores) that were not family friendly and tended to attract a criminal element.
Setting New Priorities
This information from the YAC was used by the city to set new priorities, which included making improvements to infrastructure and park facilities and creating a more diverse retail base.
Another priority was constructing a skate park and multipurpose area specifically for youth. This was the first park renovation project of this magnitude undertaken by the city in several decades. At a cost of $2.2 million (raised through grants), following eight months of construction, the La Habra Skate Park and multipurpose play area opened in 2002. The city supervises the facility and promotes the use of the multipurpose area through nonprofit community-based youth groups and the La Habra Boys and Girls Club. The city considers the park to be a work in progress and continues making improvements to it so that it remains a premier recreational area for youth.
The task force also recognized the urgent need to suppress gang activity through enforcement and programming. The Police Department worked diligently to target gang leaders and their lower level captains on an ongoing basis. The city also had a probation officer on staff whose primary focus was to keep active gang members off the street.
Sustained Effort Produces Results
The YAC proved to be an extremely valuable tool in the effort to turn around crime in the City of La Habra. This led to its establishment in 2001 as a formal advisory body to the city, serving as the voice of the city’s youth.
The committee has eight members, andcity staff and two community services commissioners act as advisors. The committee meets bimonthly and reports to the city council on ways to increase constructive youth activity and civic involvement, and reduce gang and domestic violence. The YAC’s recommendations are taken seriously by the city council and its contributions are valued by policy-makers and the community at large. The committee also helps coordinate city events and serves as a volunteer base for other community activities.
Bringing together youth and adults as partners to explore ways to solve La Habra’s problems has produced positive and long-lasting results. The city fostered active involvement by both groups, and helped the younger group understand the importance of their contributions to the quality of life in La Habra. Although the process has been a lengthy one, it has produced significant benefits for the community. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the process is the extent to which it has empowered the youth of La Habra, giving them a voice and helping them to understand the importance and value of civic involvement.
Contact: David De Leon, recreation manager, City of La Habra; phone: (562) 905-9649; fax: (562) 905-9603; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.