Roberto Hernandez stood before facing an auditorium packed with city authorities and hundreds of his community organizer colleagues one recent Thursday.
“I am tired of raising money for coffins,” he proclaimed. “The norm is to hit the floor when we hear gunshots. The Head Start program on 24th and Harrison has gunshot drills for children from ages 3 to 5. That’s unacceptable.”
With the support of city agencies and District 9 Supervisor David Campos, Hernandez is spearheading an effort to create a five-year plan to end gun violence in the Mission, which has claimed hundreds of mostly Latino lives in recent decades.
Homicides in the neighborhood increased by 50 percent last year, from six in 2011 to nine in 2012. This year started badly when a man police say is a known gang member was involved in a traffic accident that killed two people early on the morning of Jan. 1, shortly after a drive-by shooting occurred nearby, police said.
“Whatever we are doing is not working anymore,” Hernandez said.
Hundreds of community organizers gathered on Jan. 31 at Everett Middle School to brainstorm solutions for ending gun violence in the Mission. It is the first of two workshops aimed at developing and implementing a comprehensive plan with the help of the city. Elements of the plan would connect agencies that provide services for everything from tattoo removal and mental health support to gun buybacks and a hiring program for at-risk youth to help counter the influence of gangs that entice kids with gifts.
There’s a window of opportunity for major change now that gun violence and mental health are in the spotlight following the Sandy Hook massacre in Connecticut, organizers said. The goal: to treat gun violence as a mental health issue and find the root causes that lead to it.
Thinking Outside the Box
At the meeting, organizers from San Jose to the Western Addition chimed in on best practices for reaching vulnerable youth. The first task, they said, is to overcome the social stigma surrounding mental illness, sexual assault and substance abuse in the community. Experts also agreed that outreach must reach young people at a tender age, beginning in the home.
“It starts with parenting training, because some parents are not always keeping kids on the right path,” said Julio Escobar, coordinator for the San Francisco Archdiocese’s Restorative Justice Ministry. He said the emphasis must be on the youth.
Escobar, who has worked with youth in jail for the past 18 years, held three sidewalk memorial services for people who were slain in the Mission District last year.
Parents and mentors have to reach youngsters early, said Mission District police Capt. Robert Moser, because gang recruitment starts as early as the vulnerable middle-school years.
Gangs court youth by buying them clothes or shoes, Moser said.
The broad-based response will involve networking among dozens of neighborhood nonprofits that offer everything from housing to counseling. The Central American Resource Center (CARECEN), for example, has a tattoo removal program, while the Instituto Familiar de la Raza offers culturally competent mental health services. However, both currently have waiting lists.
Christina Olague, an executive assistant at Arriba Juntos, a nonprofit that helps people find employment, noted that foundations already exist to address many of these concerns.
“It’s not like we are starting from scratch,” Olague said. “We have to look at the assets we have in our community.”
The plan will also include helping some 500 youth identified as at-risk to find work. Hernandez said he wants the city to hire youth for short-term construction work on the new Warriors arena, the Central Subway and the Lennar development in the Bayview.
Longtime Mission community organizers were the dominant force at the meeting. Noticeably missing were those referred to uncomfortably as the “new residents.”
Olague said the organizers intend to knock on doors to enlist more supporters.
“When you first get started and the conversation gets going, it’s the natural thing to go to a group that you know has some level of expertise,” Olague said. “It doesn’t exclude us from doing additional outreach to bring more people in.”
Supervisor David Campos said it is premature to talk about funding, but some community organizers hope that some financing could come from the $30 million Neighborhood Promise Grant that the Mission Economic Development Agency was awarded by the U.S. Department of Education.
The groups are currently in talks, according to Victor Corral of MEDA.
“I know they are trying to address the same issues; we need to discuss how to work together,” he said. “We are trying to achieve some of the same goals, we are just going through an established funding source using a proven model.”
For his part, Campos plans to spend the bulk of his $100,000 annual district allowance on a gun buyback program tailored for the Mission.
There is some historical precedent for community organizers creating a critical mass around certain issues in the Mission. In the 1960s, some 10,000 community members took to the streets to protest a major development plan. They were successful in halting the development, and the movement spawned some of the organizations that turned out for the Jan. 31 meeting.
Organizers said they are acting now because they feel that there is support from the city for trying new methods to mitigate violence.
“Police officers have come to us saying, ‘We are tired of this cycle: we arrest and they come out. We need to break that cycle,’” said Campos. Recently, Campos has stressed that the police department is now working closely with violence interrupters from the Community Response Network — a new development.
The network helps families that have been victimized by violence, helping them with funeral arrangements and taking kids out for pizza and to the movies when tensions run high. After years of budget cuts, however, it has had to consolidate from three neighborhood-specific agencies into one citywide group.
“They are going from crisis to crisis,” Hernandez said. “It’s a cycle. Somebody dies and [there’s] a big cry. The police come out and patrol more, and then it’s back to business as usual.”
Amid hugs, photos and remembrances, the discussion turned to casualties of firearms.
“Today we are here because of Letty,” Hernandez said.
Leticia Ramirez, 33, a single mother of four, was shot and killed in a gang-related drive-by shooting on April 28, 2001, outside her home as she chatted with friends. Her loss shocked the community. “Letty was raising four children, but she happened to be sitting outside her home on a nice afternoon and got sprayed with bullets,” Hernandez said, his voice rising. “That’s unacceptable — unacceptable.”
Organizers said they will reconvene on Thursday, Feb. 28, at Everett Middle School.
Correction: Christina Olague is an executive assistant at Arriba Juntos, not the executive director.