By AMANDA MARTINEZ
I was at Bob’s Liquor Store at the corner of 26th and Harrison earlier this month to find out what neighbors knew about a shooting.
“You’re wasting your time.” “Nobody cares about us here.” That’s about as good as I got at the start, but slowly, people started to clue me into details police had missed. Two, not one resident, had been wounded. Both lived across the street in the Bernal Dwelling Housing Projects, a two-block development of 167 apartments for low-income residents.
Only three stories high, the town houses have short gates and manicured lawns, but it’s clear that the blue, yellow, and orange stucco complex on the southern edge of the Mission is different.
Hipsters rarely wander near the two-block area bordered by Cesar Chavez and 26th streets and the area is one of the few places in the Mission where there are more African Americans than Latinos.
The housing Projects were redeveloped in 2001, but despite the makeover, Ginale Harris, the director of the Bernal Dwellings Community center says, “These are still the projects.”
A couple more days inside the center gave me just a glimpse of of a few.
On one of the mornings I arrive, Harris is running late from a staff meeting at Mission Neighborhood Centers, the non-profit that funds her program.
Already at 10 a.m., teenage workers fill the center’s one large room. They’re scheduled to help at the office, the BBQ, or the car wash. For the moment most are still half asleep but awake enough to notice someone is missing. “Is Ginale here?”
Without direction they slump in the couches, cell phones come out, someone flips the television to a slasher movie.
When Harris walks in, all five-feet of her tightly compacted body say she’s ready to move. The teenagers sit up. Questions fly. Does she have the keys they need, did anyone vacuum last night? The final query stupefies even Harris. “There are no buns for the barbecue.” someone says wondering what should be done.
Harris looks as if she’s thinking but at the moment she can’t deal with it. She needs to write a check for someone who has been waiting 30 minutes. Her cell phone needs to be answered. She cancels the BBQ.
Ginale Garcia Harris, 39 years-old, has been at Bernal Dwellings since 2007 but the baby pictures on the wall show she has known many of the residents much of her life. She grew up in the projects and surrounding Mission District area. She knows them well.
“ I used to be in gangs,” she says pulling down her blouse and exposing the tattoos on her neck and chest. “I am here now because I want to give back to the community.” “ I owe the community.”
So she does—offering legal advice, getting officials on the phone, and soothing the lives of many who are poor, neglected and often troubled.
Early in the day, Nadina Cortijo visits to talk about her son D’Angelo. Harris pulls out a thick file to discuss the case.
Cortijo is concerned that her 16 -year old is being mistreated by security officers inside Juvenile Hall. Harris is helping to make sure the young man, who suffers from post traumatic stress, stays at Juvenile Hall instead of being transferred to the more punitive California Youth Authority.
The file has the teenager’s records from court, school, and psychiatrists. It’s full of the highlighter pen Harris uses. Post-its flag her most recent contact with the director of Juvenile Hall
Files like D’Angelo’s fill up the office cabinets behind Harris’s desk.
“ I feel so honored that people from the community trust me enough to put their cases in my hands, even when they have a lifetime of prison in front of them,” she says.
Harris knows the system well. She got her own caseworker, Ray Balberan from Mission Neighborhood Center when she was 11- years old. Slowly, Balberan mentored Harris out of street life.
“We would pick up kids from the streets on Friday nights and give them a safe place to hang out until two and three in the morning,” says Harris. By 19 she had turned the proverbial corner and was headed in the right direction. She finished up an AA in criminology and got a degree in English. For the last 18 years she’s worked for Mission Neighborhood Centers.
There and now here at Bernal, she’s officially an intervention services director, which means dealing with a diverse collection of people—some who work there, live there or just walk off the street and into her world.
At lunch, young boys wearing black hoodies come in with bags of Burger King. Harris can’t do much about the fast food, but when they sit down, it’s at tables where she’s set out bowls of oranges and strawberries.
Half Puerto Rican, half-Portuguese, Harris pulls back her hair in a no-nonsense, I’m-ready-to-work style. Her skin is dark and clear, but it’s her energy that is front and center and there’s nothing scatter shot about it—it’s strong, focused, and smart. The only hint of frivolity is her detailed acrylic nails.
Determined to keep the center going, Harris is quick to confront those who get in her way and is unafraid to ask for help.
On one day she borrows a neighbor’s water hose. A sign reads, “ Support Bernal Dwellings Youth Program $10 car wash.” But the orange cones expose an empty space and money not being made.
It’s hard to be impressed when Harris says that the car wash and the BBQ are the main fundraisers to get 50 residents to Disneyland for a three-day vacation.
Harris smiles. She can read my skepticism and explains. The fund raising started in January and this summer there’s something going on every day—nacho sales, spaghetti dinners, car washes–$7,000 worth, she says smiling.
With one week to go she is $500 short, but the trip’s booked.
The bowls of fruit are only part of the schooling that goes on at the center. When the teenagers walk inside the door, they see a sign that reads, “Who Am I?” Below the sign, biographies of African American inventors and civil rights leaders are displayed,. T-shirts and calendars of President Barack Obama fill the adjacent wall.
Harris knows she’s fighting a lot. The young boys gravitate toward the computers to watch music videos by R& B singer R. Kelley.
“These kids don’t even know who King Tut is, they don’t know about slavery,” says Harris.
They need to know, but they also need skills and Harris gives her workers—paid and unpaid—plenty of opportunities to learn some.
They help make copies for cases she is working on, learn to answer phones professionally, show up on time, and keep a clean office.
“ Why am I the only one standing?” she ask when she realizes she is the only one ready for the days fundraiser. “They don’t have role models or even see people who go to work everyday.”
Even those still learning the work ethic have already caught on to the importance of the center.
“ It seems to be just a comfortable place for people to hang out,” says Maria from the Mayor’s Youth Employment and Education Program.
“I feel more safe in here than out there, ” she adds pointing outside the door.
Just then a mother echos her sentiment.
“Your not just gonna be chillin outside,” she says adamantly to her tween daughter.
Learning to Love the Projects
Lybia Gomez enters the center to look for her 12 -year old son who is playing video games on the computer. Before approaching him she grabs a wrapped hamburger left over from the free lunch program.
For Gomez, who came from Peru, the decision to move to Bernal was a matter of life and death. She was escaping an abusive husband.
“It was live on the streets or live here,” she says.
But still the decision was not easy. Gomez was afraid of blacks.
Harris estimates that 75 percent of the Bernal Dwellings Residents are African American.
“The culture was so different from my country,” Gomez says.
Harris helped bridge the gap and Gomez has found a community of friends.
“She works beautifully and I have confidence in her,” says Gomez referring to Harris ability to unite the neighbors.
When Gomez’s 14- year old daughter Yesenia was set to graduate from middle school this spring, Harris along with fellow tenants helped her get dressed. Together they did her hair, nails and makeup and made it a day that both mother and daughter will never forget.
Gomez now looks forward to joining her Bernal neighbors on the trip to Disneyland. The three-day trip will cost Gomez and others only a quarter of the trips true price, but it’s not free. Each tenant pays $150 per person.
Gomez has been saving since March. “ If she didn’t take us my kids would have never been able to go,” she says.
When asked what excites him most about the upcoming trip. Gomez’s son is quick to answer: the hotel. “ It has a pool, bed, and TV.”
At 1 p.m. every Wednesday a truck arrives and drops one big pallet filled with boxes of carrots, potatoes, onions, corn, watermelon, bananas, plums, sausage, and frozen pizza dough.
For the next three hours Terry Hall and any number of volunteers will distribute the weekly shipment from the Food Bank.
“Times are tough right now you know,” he says recalling the man from Nob Hill who came by a week earlier. “We don’t turn anybody away.”
Hall lived in the projects for more than 30 years but got evicted four months ago. He doesn’t say much about why except “I used to have trouble with drugs.”
Now he takes a bus every morning from his new residence in the Bayview to help Harris with food delivery, maintenance, and anything she needs done.
“It keeps me honest,” he explains.
Sorting the rotten watermelon from fresh plums and cantaloupe Hall, known as uncle Terry to the residents, makes sure the best produce is passed out, but even before that happens he makes up bags to deliver to residents too old or disabled to pick up their own.
A quick survey shows that Harris’s best volunteers are often former residents.
At the end of the day, a box of free lunches sits on the table. It’s clear they’re going to be tossed, but Hall rescues them and walks out the door. I follow him and watch. He crosses the street to the corner where undocumented workers are still waiting for a job. He hands them the food and walks back. “No use in it going to waste,” he says.
Stay Away Orders
For other former residents, returning is not as easy.
I learn this early on the first day. A young man walks in carrying a baby girl dressed in white and pink, tiny against her father’s bulging hooded sweater and baggy jeans.
Harris’s smile disappears. “Are you allowed to be here?”
The young man’s ease with the baby turns to frustration. He pulls out a folded Google map from his front pocket and holds it in the air. Four blocks highlighted in yellow are off-limits, according to his stay-away order.
He hands it to Harris. Her smile returns. The highlighting ends before the center’s entrance.
But the truth is no joke. A sign on the door clearly states, “If you have stay away orders or are a wanted fugitive, do not enter, please respect the space – Ginale Harris”
You need to tell them (cops) that you receive services from this location, she advises.
The discussion of the stay-away order quickly turns into a conversation about the police. Suddenly the room is animated and teenage boys gather around the desk, interrupting each other and jumping back and forth.
“ I tell them bunk me up,” says one boy who has become accustomed to overnight stays in jail.
Another interrupts. “Man the 5-0 know me,” he says using police code to refer to them. I tell them, “ F*** no,” if they try and question me.
“Don’t say f***, say no sir,” says Harris sitting at a desk with the California Penal Code on a bookshelf nearby.
“The problem is these kids are immune to jail,” says Harris who also understands the reasons behind the disrespect.
“They don’t come here to ask if we are safe or how we are doing they only come to harass people,” she says.
Later a 50-something woman in a wheel chair adds, “It’s like they think Bernal Dwellings is a jail cell. They tell us we have to go inside when all we are doing is talking on the street.”
A week earlier, an officer Harris calls, “the tree,” because of his height walked into the center gun drawn, yelling and without explanation. He was looking for a suspect, she says.
Harris wrote-up a complaint to the Office of Citizen Complaints and if she doesn’t find help there, she’ll go next to District 9 Supervisor David Campos.
“This is all I know,” she says. “We’re a family.”
In surprising ways, however, Harris still believes in the system. She doesn’t hate all cops. She talks fondly of one who has slowly built a relationship with the community by supporting the center’s daily fundraisers and asking if he can come in and say hello.
He’s one of the few policemen she’s said yes to. She wants outsiders to know her community. “Anyone is welcome, anytime you want to come you can come, you can just come and hang out here. As long as you respect the residents.”