Investigations

Street-wise solutions to gang problems in SLO County

Mario De Leon, center, coordinator of the Keystone Program in Oceano, meets with some of the program’s participants, from left, Andrew Andrade, Modest Keenan, Beau Velten and Lazaro Brito.
Mario De Leon, center, coordinator of the Keystone Program in Oceano, meets with some of the program’s participants, from left, Andrew Andrade, Modest Keenan, Beau Velten and Lazaro Brito. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Clarification: The countywide Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission wrote some but not all of the applications that resulted in $148,000 grants for gang prevention programs; in many cases the commission provided local agencies with information on grant opportunities and those agencies wrote their own applications. Also, CAPSLO is not funding the Generation Next afterschool program for the 2014-15 school year because it tried but was unable to obtain grants.

Michael Macias ran his index finger over his brow and then across both of his cheekbones, as if he were applying war paint.

“Right here and here. This was all tatted,” he says.

Macias, 35, said he once claimed membership to a street gang loosely based around Paso Robles. It took several arrests for battery and drug possession for him to go straight.

In the course of his rehabilitation, Macias took advantage of one of the county’s few programs for adult offenders out of custody, Liberty Tattoo Removal Service. The program has flourished since the creation of the San Luis Obispo County Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission, which recently secured an $88,000 grant for a new laser tattoo removal machine.

The commission, led by coordinator Marci Powers, is the go-to body for local police, prosecutors and community organizations in finding resources for combating the 28 street gangs and about 944 documented gang members that officials say live in the county.

The county has adopted a three-pronged policy for addressing gangs — prevention, suppression and rehabilitation.

While suppression has increased with more gang-related prosecutions, funding for prevention programs for children and teens is increasingly difficult to obtain. 

Some community youth programs have had to limit services, and community leaders are looking for new ways to keep residents — young and old — from resorting to the gang life.

“We’re trying to provide that safety net,” Powers said. “But it’s not easy.”

Law enforcement prevention programs

When it was formed in 2008, the Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission had one broad goal — to work with county agencies and community-based organizations to pay for gang prevention and rehabilitation programs, as well as assist law enforcement efforts in suppressing gangs.

The commission has secured $148,000 in grants to date. Among them: the $88,000 tattoo removal machine, $35,000 for a Youth in Action program, $5,500 for two Anti-Youth Gang and Violence conferences, $3,600 for training county probation officers, and $1,000 for a parenting program for at-risk youths.

The Youth in Action prevention program was created in 2008 in a partnership between the Probation Department, the Sheriff’s Office and the District Attorney’s Office.

It serves kids ages 10-14 and includes bi-weekly sessions of an 18-week school-based curriculum focused on the consequences of gang membership, drug and alcohol abuse and violence.

The Sheriff’s Office also operates a local Gang Resistance Education and Training (G.R.E.A.T.) Program at local schools, part of a national program to prevent delinquency, youth violence and gang membership. Deputies lead six weekly classes for fourth- and fifth-graders and 13 weekly classes for students in sixth to eighth grade.

Sheriff Ian Parkinson said the prevention programs are an important part of the county’s three-pronged strategy.

“I’ve always believed there is no one solution to gangs,” he said. “We can’t simply enforce our way out of this.”

Rehabilitation efforts

For former gang members looking to move on, the Liberty Tattoo Removal program remains one of the few rehabilitation programs offered outside the County Jail, Powers said.

However, thanks to Assembly Bill 109, commonly known as state prison realignment, counties across California have received funding since 2011 for re-entry programs at county jails in exchange for housing nonviolent offenders locally rather than in state prison.

San Luis Obispo County has instituted GED, behavioral therapy, drug and alcohol, vocational and tattoo removal programs at the jail.

In 2012, the county established the Jail to Jobs Collaborative, which identifies gaps in services for released offenders and coaches offenders on how to navigate services.

Focusing on tattoos

The Anti-Gang Coordinating Commission’s single largest expenditure was the $88,000 laser tattoo removal machine in 2012.

In 2013 alone, Liberty Tattoo Removal served 133 men and women in San Luis Obispo and northern Santa Barbara counties. About 56 percent said they were formerly incarcerated and 48 percent admitted to previous gang membership.

“We help clients remove their anti-social gang tattoos, but also things like an ex-wife’s name on their face, neck and hands — poor choices that can prevent people from getting that job when they’re trying to move on with their lives,” said program coordinator Janet Allenspach.

The service doesn’t come cheap. Participants must donate to the program or complete 16 hours of community service for each appointment, while also staying clean and sober.

While Liberty Tattoo Removal specializes in removing gang-related or anti-social body art, law enforcement’s focus on tattoos is not without some controversy.

Many tattoo shop owners say customers rarely ask for gang insignia. Some owners also say police agencies can misinterpret some forms of self-expression.

Ron Silva, co-owner of Never Enough Tattoo and Body Piercing in Atascadero said tattoos like “805,” the area code for the Central Coast, may be intended by some to represent a Central Coast gang. Others, however, simply take pride in the region or want to memorialize the name of the “805” brand of beer, he said.

Silva, who has a map of California tattooed on his face, pulled up his shirt to reveal an “805” tattoo on his stomach. “I’ve had this thing since I was young,” he said. “And I’ve never been a gang member.”

Programs for kids

The most important strategy the county can take to combat gang membership is to support chronically under-funded youth programs, said Powers, the Anti-Gang Commission coordinator.

Staffers at youth organizations around the county say their programs don’t target just gang issues but aim more broadly to help all kids learn to make healthy choices and avoid getting into any kind of trouble — including gangs.

 

“For us the biggest risk factors for the kids are poverty and single-parent households,” said Chrystie Richards, program coordinator for the South County Boys and Girls Club, which serves kids from kindergarten through eighth grade.

Richards said kids who come to the club are young enough that they aren’t caught up in gang activity. But the potential may be there, she said.

“I don’t see it so much in this age group, but you see the idea of it,” she said. “You’ll see them make references. You may see a few sort of emulate it, but they don’t necessarily want to live that lifestyle.”

While the club’s after-school programs work to steer kids in a good direction, Richards said, one challenge is having transportation so they can even attend. Many kids simply have no way of getting there.

At the Boys and Girls Club of North San Luis Obispo County, up to 100 kids attend each day, said Jeremy Perales, director of operations and programs.

Perales said he doesn’t know if gangs are a problem, but that every child needs a positive environment to make healthy friendships and to do well in school.

“The kids, I think they mainly need to feel important, to feel loved,” Perales said.

Mentors and money

Big Brothers Big Sisters of San Luis Obispo County tries to address that by providing caring mentors for at-risk kids.

But while it has a healthy number of adult mentors in the South County and in San Luis Obispo, more are needed in the North County, said executive director Anna Boyd-Bucy.

“We’ve had many discussions about that,” Boyd-Bucy said. “The funding (which comes from private fundraising) is most available in SLO, but we need to serve more kids in North County where the need is greatest.”

She said the program serves about 350 mentor matches at any time. Her biggest challenge is a constant lack of funding and resources.

“It’s heartbreaking to the staff to take an inquiry and know that the kid is not likely to be able to participate because we just don’t have the mentors or we don’t have them in the same area as the child,” she said.

Other programs also continue to struggle. Generation Next, an after-school program for at-risk teens, had to close this school year after losing its funding from the Community Action Partnership of San Luis Obispo County.

Keystone of success

Just down the street from the Boys and Girls Club of South County, gang violence hit home one day in November 2011.

Gabriel Salgado, 17, and a younger friend had just walked past Mario De Leon, who works at the club, and waved hello as usual.

“He walked by right here,” De Leon said, pointing past the chain link fence of the club. “He was just going to the store, minding his own business. And that was it.”

Moments later, Salgado was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head and his friend suffered leg wounds at the hands of a Los Angeles gang member in a random drive-by shooting. The boys had no gang ties.

De Leon, a lifelong Oceano resident, said the South County has always had a reputation for being tough. But he’s seen far less activity in the past decade, he said.

“Gang problems are always going to be here because you still have kids who want to be part of that lifestyle,” De Leon said.

But for teenagers seeking an alternative, providing after-school activities such as the Keystone Program, a national program affiliated with the Boys and Girls Club, are critical, he said.

De Leon coordinates the Keystone Program, which includes academic and leadership training, tracking participants’ grades and completing monthly community projects — including the recent construction of the Community Center’s new Fitness Park.

The program is designed so that De Leon works as a mentor and the participants recruit members and coordinate events.

About 20 teens currently participate, including 17-year-olds Lazaro Brito and Andrew Andrade. Both have been in the Keystone Program for years, and both recently graduated from Arroyo Grande High School.

The teens said the program has not only kept them busy with community service projects and youth events, but also away from trouble.

“This has kept me off the streets and helped me make the right choices,” Andrade said. “Especially in your senior year, you just want to party. But this keeps me focused on other things.”

“If it wasn’t for this (program), what if I had turned to some people I know to get high?” Brito said. “That would have really changed things for me.”

This fall, Brito will attend San Jose State to pursue a degree in environmental science; Andrade has signed up to work in communications in the U.S. Army.

Factoring in poverty

In a concerted effort where different groups have well-defined roles in combating gang activity, many in the local faith-based community wonder what their role is in the effort.

When Shawn Penn moved to the county from Corvallis, Ore., in 2010 to take over as head pastor of the Paso Robles Community Church, he heard stories about local gang activity.

“I think the perception is that (North County) is a dangerous place,” Penn said. “But I think that’s just a perception, not necessarily reality.”

He said his congregation is an eclectic mix of families, including members of law enforcement and a few felons with gang-related convictions.

But Penn said the gang issue should be countered by empowering youth with positive services, including more recreational facilities. He said local programs have good leadership and committed staff, but too little presence. Families living below the poverty level have few options.

“Culturally, we have a gap with the youth. And if you don’t have money to enroll your kids in a program, what do you do?” he said.

Penn said the biggest community problem he sees is the “age-old battle” of graffiti and efforts to keep the neighborhood clean.

“Is that really gang activity? Or is it poverty or too few options for the kids out there that they get into trouble?” Penn said. “I think it’s blended — and I don’t know how you get around that.”

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