Boyle Heights Los Angeles Community Needs Assessment

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Boyle Heights is a neighborhood located on the east side of Los Angeles (Healthy City, 2010). An initial assessment of the community revealed issues of poverty and crime. According to the Los Angeles Police Department, Hollenbeck Division (2011), the majority of crimes committed in the Boyle Heights community are property crimes such as auto theft and burglary, however there are also violent crimes such as robbery and aggravated assaults (Los Angeles Police Department COMPSTAT, 2011). According to detective Antonio Macklin of the Hollenbeck police station in Boyle Heights, the majority of crimes are motivated by economic factors as Boyle Heights is a poor community (A. Macklin, personal communication, February 10, 2011).

An initial drive and walk through the residential areas of the community of Boyle Heights revealed homes in various states of disrepair. The majority of houses are old. As one walks further along through the streets graffiti is visible. However, this is also a community rich in cultural history. A further walk through the community reveals a historical museum, Mariachi Plaza, Murals depicting Mexican American Culture, Catholic Churches, and family-owned markets, restaurants and clothing stores. Despite crime in the area, children are observed playing in the streets, in the local parks and in their backyards. The community does have various parks and recreation centers as well as community centers.

Community Characteristics

Physical/Geographical

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Boyle Heights is located in East Los Angeles and its geographical boundaries are demarcated by the City of Vernon to the South, East Los Angeles to the east, Lincoln Heights and El Sereno to the north, Los Angeles River and Downtown Los Angeles to the West (City of Los Angeles, 2005). For the purpose of this needs assessment, the boundaries of Boyle Heights were narrowed to boundaries as defined by the Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council website (2011) consisting of Marengo Street to the North, 25th street to the South, Indiana street to the East and the Los Angeles River to the West (Boyle Heights Neighborhood Council, n.d.). Boyle Heights is a mixture of residential areas, commercial areas, open space and public facilities (City of Los Angeles, 2005). According to data obtained from HealthyCity.org (2010), there are 12 Parks and Recreational Centers within a one mile radius of the Boyle Heights community. Additionally, Boyle Heights has a variety of small businesses punctuated by assets in the community such as White Memorial Medical Center, the extension of the Metro Gold Line and Los Angeles USC Medical Center, which according to the President of the Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce, Alicia Maldonado, these assets have "brought improvements to the community, jobs for the residents, customers to the retail establishments and better health care (Boyle Heights Chamber of Commerce, 2011, p. 1)". Former resident of Boyle Heights, Geneva Garcia, who resided in the area from the 1950's until 2009, stated that "independent of the presence of gangs and crime in the area", she has fond memories of her childhood and her life in Boyle Heights because of the many parks, recreational activities, sports and other community activities available to her (G. Garcia, personal communication, February 10, 2011). Ms. Garcia also confirmed that the majority of the community is Latino. This has further been confirmed through data obtained from the HealthyCity.org website and observation of the community.

Historical Background

According to the Boyle Heights Historical Society Website (2011), Boyle Heights was originally founded in the late 1800s. However, the neighborhood became recognized in the early 20th century as a neighborhood of immigrants (Boyle Heights Historical Society, 2011). During this period of time, Boyle Heights became a "gateway" for immigrants who could not live in downtown Los Angeles because of the racial segregation of Jews, Mexicans, Japanese and some Russians (Los Angeles Times Magazine, 2009). Although currently, Jewish, Japanese and Russian immigrants are not part of the make-up of this community, they are an important part of its history. According to The Boyle Height Project (2003), the Boyle Heights community has been a melting-pot of diverse cultures which need to be preserved and understood. Interviews conducted by the project in 2003 with previous residents of the area from Japanese, Jewish and Russian descent, indicate that these former residents of the area all bonded over being immigrants and victims of racial discrimination. This history of discrimination and disenfranchisement has carried over to the current population of the community which is Mexican-American, Latino and working class (The Boyle Heights Project: A Power of Place, 2003).

Population/Economic/Political

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According to the HealthyCity.org (2010), the total population living in Boyle Heights is 50,155 with 91.66% of the population being Hispanic, 2.87% White and 1.58% Black or African American, which makes Boyle Heights a predominantly Latino community. Economically, Boyle Heights is an under-privileged community compared to similar neighborhoods in the area. According to HealthyCity.org (2011), families living below the poverty level in Boyle Heights is 28.40%. This is compared to a rate of 16.02% in El Sereno, 19.44% in Chinatown and 24.15% in Lincoln Heights, all of which are neighboring communities to Boyle Heights. This data indicates that Boyle Heights is the poorest of all the communities in the East Los Angeles Area comprised of zip codes, 90012, 90031, and 90032. According to the California Endowment website (2011), politically, Boyle Heights encompasses city council district 14 represented by Councilman Jose Huizar. Other political representatives at the local level include County Supervisor, district 1, Gloria Molina and Mayor of the City of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa (California Endowment, 2011). At the State level, Boyle Heights is represented by senators Gil Cedillo and Gloria Romero and State assemblymen, Kevin De Leon and John Perez (California Endowment, 2011). All elected officials representing Boyle Heights are part of the Democratic Party however, Boyle Heights political life is said to be dominated by a mixture of both, conservative and progressive politicians (California Endowment, 2011).

Community Resources/Strengths and Needs

Boyle Heights is a community with many different resources and strengths. This is a community with several service providers as identified through the Healthy City website (2010). A survey of the services and programs available indicates that there are at least 16 programs in the community for youth and families. Resources include various parks and recreational centers, community events such as summer lights in the park, museums, community centers, sports facilities, schools, a learning collaborative, commercial facilities, restaurants, and catholic churches each of which are a source of strength in the community. Also among the strengths in this community is HomeBoy Industries, a non-profit organization dedicated to providing services free of charge to youth and adults who no longer wish to engage in gang activity. Their services include but are not limited to school, job training and placement, counseling, and legal services (HomeBoy Industries, n.d.). Additionally, Projecto Pastoral at Dolores Mission focuses on underprivileged youth in the area and provides after school programs during the school year and a program called IMPACTO which provides outreach services, tutoring, personal development and a safe place for youth (Projecto Pastoral, n.d.). These two programs highlight the availability of programs and resources in this community. However, despite the availability of resources in the community, there is a prevalent need for economic development in the form of more jobs and economic opportunities for the residents of the area in order ameliorate the high poverty and unemployment rate. Furthermore, although there are an abundance of service providers in the area, there is no consistent collaboration between service providers, which is a need that should be strengthened in order to increase the effectiveness of services provided.

Interview Section

Interviews were conducted with several members of the community including a law enforcement officer, a service provider, a former resident who lived in the community in the 1950s and a mother currently living in the community with teenage children. Quotes and excerpts from the interviews are incorporated throughout the paper however, it is important to note that all of the individuals interviewed share common experiences, all of which take place in the neighborhood of Boyle Heights. The interviewees believe that young adults can prevent themselves from making unsafe choices by obtaining the following qualities: a good support system, recognizing and acceptance of their problems and participation in intervention programs to help them achieve a positive and healthier lifestyle. The interviewees believe that the presence of violence is evident in any community however, with awareness and appropriate prevention and intervention efforts, each individual has the power to make positive choices that lead to a lifespan of good outcomes as opposed to a lifespan of constant struggle with destructive behavior and engagement in violent crime.

The Social Problem

Boyle Heights is a diverse community with a rich history that includes a long legacy of gang activity as a community concern. These concerns have been highly publicized for decades (Los Angeles Times Magazine, 2009; Urban Institute, 2010; Advancement Project, 2006). According to LAPD Hollenbeck Division gang detectives, Boyle Heights has a higher gang population than any other neighborhood in the Los Angeles Area (Urban Institute 2010). The city of Los Angeles is considered the gang capital of the world (Urban Institute, 2010; Advancement Project 2006; R. Hernandez, classroom lecture, February 8, 2011). When Los Angeles Mayo Antonio Villaraigosa took office, a priority of his was to address the gang problem in Los Angeles (R. Hernandez, 2011). In order to accomplish this task, the Mayor's office instituted the Gang Reduction and Youth Development Program or GRYD (Urban Institute, 2010; Advancement Project; 2006; R. Hernandez, 2011). The GRYD program is a targeted prevention and intervention program aimed at reducing the gang problem in Los Angeles (Urban Institute, 2010; R. Hernandez, 2011). In order to accomplish this task, the advancement project divided gang impacted communities into "GRYD zones" (Advancement Project 2006; Urban Institute, 2010; R Hernandez, 2011). The neighborhood of Boyle Heights is GRYD zone and according to the Urban Institute GRYD Boyle Heights evaluation report (2010), in the mid 2000's there were an estimated 2,000 documented and suspected gang members from the major gangs in Boyle Heights including: Barrio Nuevo Estrada, Opal Street, Indiana Dukes, White Fence and 8th street (Urban Institute, 2010). The prevalence of gangs in the area was further confirmed by qualitative interviews with key informants in the area. These informants include Detective Antonio Macklin of the Hollenbeck Division who stated during an interview that "gang related crime and violence has been an issue in the community although less recently than in previous years" (A. Macklin, 2011). Geneva Garcia, former resident of the area stated that she recalls the presence of "gangs in the neighborhood growing up and I also recall shootings, crime and violence" (G. Garcia, 2011). Although she also stated that "gangs were just part of the neighborhood and that for the most part they left residents of the area alone if you did not interfere with their activities." (G. Garcia, 2011). Geneva also stated that, in her opinion, gangs not only "sources of crime and violence as publicized in the media but also sources of safety for the community." (G. Garcia, 2011). The perspective of Ms. Garcia seems to contradict most public opinion or official "reports" however, it is important to consider that Ms. Garcia was a resident of the area from 1950 until 2009 and therefore she represents an important perspective in this community. Furthermore, Ms. Garcia's opinion correlates with findings expressed in the professional literature, namely, that gang concerns are multi-faceted with poverty being one of the main contributing factors (The Advancement Project, 2006; Urban Institute, 2010; Zimmerman et al., 2004; Agency for Health Care Research and Quality, 2004; Coughlin & Venkatesh, 2003).

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According to research conducted by the Advancement Project (2006), massive job losses in East Los Angeles during the mid 1970's to the 1980's along with policies such as proposition 13, which cut property tax revenue, had an economic impact in the community that led to an increase in gang activity for economic reasons. Law enforcement officer Detective Antonio Macklin of the Hollenbeck police department further corroborated this impact, as did Rolando Cruz from Home Boy Industries, since both individuals were interviewed as part of this assessment. Each of these key informants advised that economic downturns correlate to an increase in gang activity. In fact, HomeBoy Industries, a non-profit organization in the area has a motto of "Nothing stops a bullet like a job." During the personal interview, Rolando Cruz, the curriculum coordinator for said organization states that "If someone is earning a decent paycheck in an honest way, there is no reason for them to be out there in the streets" (R. Cruz, personal communication, February 5, 2011). Although the gang concerns should not be oversimplified by reducing them to only economic terms, it is important to recognize that poverty is deeply interconnected with social issues such as gang involvement.

Impact

Gang involvement has negatively impacted the community of Boyle Heights. (The Advancement Project, 2006; Urban Institute, 2010; A. Macklin, 2011; R. Hernandez, 2011). In 2006, 14.3% of deaths in the Boyle Heights community were attributed to firearms (Healthy City, 2010). Additionally, there was a high percentage, 42.46% ,of non-fatal firearms incidents in Boyle Heights in 2007 (Healthy City, 2010). These statistics are augmented by recent crime statistics available for this community. According to the Los Angeles Times crime mapping system, during the past six months, from July 2010 to January of 2011, the rate of violent crimes in the Boyle Heights area continues to be higher than in neighboring communities such as El Sereno, Lincoln Heights, Downtown and Chinatown (Los Angeles Times, n.d.). The impact of violence and crime is significant in any community, however, the impact of violence and crime is greater in a community like Boyle Heights, which is a community with a high proportion of youth, 32.87 % (Healthy City, 2010), low educational attainment as 42.25% of the population has less than a 9th grade education (Healthy City, 2010), a 46.36% unemployment rate (Healthy City, 2010), and a high percentage of families living below poverty level at 28.40% (Healthy City, 2010). All of these risk factors contribute to a community in which violence and crime are part of a way of life that takes young people away from more positive activities such as being engaged in school, seeking skills for employment and becoming involved in community activities which might lead to a decrease in gang involvement. The prevalence of risk factors in this community with its connection to gang activity is perhaps must poignantly described by Rolando Cruz of Home Boy Industries, who grew up in Boyle Heights when he stated that "gang crimes, the evidence of high poverty rates, the low educational status, and the unemployment rates are familiar community issues from my past and scenes of the present struggle in attempting to transform the troubling youth of the community into productive citizens." (R. Cruz, personal communication, February 10, 2011).

Community efforts to address a reduction in gang activity include non-profit organizations such as HomeBoy Industries, The GRYD program through the Mayor's office, which works on prevention and intervention with local service providers in the area, programs such as Boys and Girls Club, recreational programs through the many parks in the area, the Boyle Heights learning collaborative, and community events such as summer lights in the park (Healthy City, 2010; A. Macklin, 2011; R. Cruz, 2011; R. Hernandez, 2011). However, despite the progress made toward reducing gang activity and youth violence in the community, the question remains, how can this social problem be mitigated? Although there is no clear answer to this question, there is a theoretical lens that when applied to this social problem provides insight into the many components of this complex issue. Ecosystems theory provides this theoretical lens.

Theory

Ecosystems theory focuses on the interaction between the individual and his or her environment (Salkind, 2005; Miley, O'Melia, & DuBois, 2009). As such, ecosystems theory "describes the behaviors of individuals, families, groups, organizations, local communities, and international societies as interconnected (Miley et al., p. 30)." This is a helpful lens when analyzing a social problem since it conceptualizes behavior from the point of view that human behavior and interaction "develops overtime and it is a response to external factors and sees behavior as adaptive given its context (Miley et al., p. 30)". When applying this lens to gang activity and youth violence, one can see how gang involvement makes sense in a community where youth are raised with poverty, low educational attainment, few resources, violence as a way of life, labeling by law enforcement, abuse or neglect at home, immigration factors and multi-generational gang involvement. This has been corroborated by the professional knowledge base. In 2004, Zimmerman et.al published a study in which they interviewed adolescent middle school children about their beliefs and experiences surrounding gang involvement and gang violence. One of the most significant findings of the study is that children's exposure to violence at home and in their community provided for a normative experience associated with violence and a tendency to lose sympathy for victims of violence (Zimmerman et al., 2004). Furthermore, Zimmerman et.al (2004) found that with regard to individuals who feel powerless within their social structure, the lure of violence and aggressive peer groups (i.e. gangs) might prove to provide a sense of personal security and power as one youth wrote "Violence, is in a way, is power - the power to rule people, if people are afraid of you, you have power over them, you can make them do what you want." (Zimmerman et al. 2004). Additionally, Coughlin and Venkatesh (2003), indicate that immigration factors are likely relevant to an increase in inner city gang affiliation and patterns of local gang activity may be mediated by cultural and social organizational processes such as segregation (Coughlin & Venkatesh, 2003). This is true in the Boyle Heights community, a community historically made up of immigrants that were not allowed to live in downtown Los Angeles due to racial segregation. Upon the proliferation of gangs and violence in the area, violence as a normative factor along with other risk factors such as poverty, have continually interacted to sustain gang activity as a community concern. Given the complexity of gang involvement, the question of how to eliminate this problem remains largely unsolved. It remains to be seen what long-term positive outcomes prevention and intervention approaches such as GRYD will have on this important and relevant problem. One thing remains clear, prevention and intervention efforts must be targeted not just toward the individual but also toward the multiple environments in which the individual functions. It further stands to reason that, through ecosystems theory, if community youth are exposed to more positive peer and community interactions, embracing a more positive approach to problem solving is possible. Approaches need to be targeted to the individual, the family, the schools, the community, and of course, national, state, and local officials in charge of making policies that can address the risk factors closely associated with gang involvement and institute protective factors that mitigate those risk factors associated with this social problem.

Rationale for Action

The prevalence of violent crime in Boyle Heights is correlated with the high degree of gang involvement in the area. Research by the advancement project (2006) and the Urban Policy Center (2010) Indicate that gangs are very much a part of the Boyle Heights Community. This is further validated by qualitative interviews conducted during the needs assessment for this community. Law enforcement official with the Los Angeles Police Department Hollenbeck Division, Deputy Antonio Macklin indicated during his interview that the "majority of crimes committed in the Boyle Heights community are committed by Latino youth between the ages of 15 and 25." Furthermore, Rosalia Gonzales, a mother and resident of Boyle Heights since the 1960's indicates that she experiences frequent concern for her teenage son and daughter because of the pressure to be involved in gang activity in the neighborhood and fears her children being the unintended victims of violence in the community. Ms. Gonzales explicitly stated that the majority of residents in Boyle Height are poor single mothers like herself and that it is sometimes extremely difficult to keep children in school and on a straight path, particularly when the peer pressure of gang involvement and the lure of easy money in a poor neighborhood seem much more appealing. (R.Gonzales, personal communication, 2011).

Data from Healthy Cities indicates that 28.40% of the families in Boyle Heights live below the poverty level while 71% of families live at or barely above the poverty level. This is further augmented by the fact 46.36% of the population ages 16 and above are not in the labor force (Healthy Cities, 2010). These statistics mean that the vast majority of the residents in Boyle Heights are poor and unemployed that the low educational attainment in the community compounds this problem further. Given all of these compounding factors, the gang involvement issue cannot be easily addressed. A single point of intervention and prevention or a single level of intervention and prevention is not sufficient. A successful prevention and intervention strategy at multiple levels must be established. Although existing programs in the community such as the GRYD project, and community agencies such as HomeBoy Industries provide successful models of intervention, these models are primarily directed toward individuals who are already involved in gangs. A new model that integrates services at multiple levels and involves all members of the community must be integrated. A new approach would involve targeting youth in the community regardless of gang involvement and addressing the multiple compounding problems that contribute the gang involvement and violence. Services must be provided to families, individuals and the communities that help build a stronger, healthier community. Job opportunities, educational opportunities, music, arts, youth activities, family activities, community organizing, and counseling services, are all but a few of the many services that need to be integrated and coordinated in to a healthy community.

Framework for Intervention

Many of the city, county, and local government officials that service the Boyle Heights area are prominent Latin American individuals with a stated commitment to improving life among their constituents by ensuring access to government, education, employment and public safety. One of the most prominent stakeholders and a former resident of the Boyle Heights community is Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa who was born in Boyle Heights in 1953. Mayor Villaraigosa is a proponent of a strong police force in Los Angeles County and for the reduction of crime, which includes gang-related crime. "A key part of the Mayor's strategy to combat the City's gang epidemic is to establish GRYD zones in the communities most affected by gangs. In addition to an increased deployment of police, the GRYD zones will receive additional resources focused on prevention, intervention and re-entry programs for those involved or otherwise affected by gangs. This holistic approach is seen by experts as key to reducing not only the crime rates, but also the membership of young people in gangs (Antonio Villaraigosa Mayor of Los Angeles website, 2007)."

The mayor's GRYD program in the Boyle Heights area includes a prevention model that utilizes the support of the Hollenbeck Police Department. Since youth in gang-infested areas might be prone to mistrust of police authority, having a personal experience with a police officer that is supportive and enriching is one path to introducing youth to a positive adult mentor. The Hollenbeck Police Activities League (PAL) was established in 1992 and boasts that 85% of the youth in the PAL program attend college (Hollenbeck PAL, 2011). PAL youth also engage in enriching experiences with their peers.

Walker and Mason (2001) stated that much of the "research on youth delinquency has focused on community-level risk factors such as poverty and social disorganization (Walker-Barnes & Mason, 2001, p. 1815)". However, they proposed that youth were at higher risk for gang involvement if there was a lack of effective parenting coupled with a high exposure to delinquent peers. Walker and Mason discovered that youth who reported gang involvement often did not include their mothers as one of the most influential people in their lives. Further, they found that authoritarian parenting styles were less effective in reducing youth gang involvement but parents who practice "higher levels of behavioral control and warmth were related to lower initial levels of gang involvement and gang delinquency (Walker-Barnes & Mason, 2001, p. 1826)." In addition, lack of parental involvement also indicated increased risk for gang involvement. Therefore, positive parenting approaches are an essential component to an effective prevention strategy.

Evidence based research such as Positive Peer Culture (PPC) proposes that "troubled youth need more than technique; they need transformative experiences with other people (Laursen, 2010, p. 38)." Participation in a PPC model of prevention could primarily be targeted toward at-risk youth although one could argue that all of the youth in the Boyle Heights community could be at risk because of the high incidence of gang involved youth. The PPC model proposes to provide youth with opportunities for empowerment and altruism, which increases self worth and connections with others and with their communities. The PPC model further indicates that youth need to feel that they are in a supportive and safe environment therefore this model should be used in conjunction with therapy and not as a replacement for therapy (Laursen, 2010, p. 41). PPC could be offered as an extracurricular after school activity and if successful could be integrated into the school curriculum as an elective course for junior high or high school students.

There are two additional models of intervention that could be used in conjunction with the PPC program depending on the specific needs of the youth involved. First, the Equipping Youth to Help One Another (EQUIP) model is a derived from the PPC program "in which individuals turn from antisocial and self-destructive behavior to behavior that helps others and themselves (Leeman, Gibbs, & Fuller, 1993, p. 282)." Leeman et al indicate that the EQUIP model is more effective with youth who "often lack the helping skills and moral maturity" that they need to help others and who might also benefit from learning appropriate ways of self-control since this model incorporates elements of anger management training (Leeman, Gibbs, & Fuller, 1993, p. 282)."

Secondly, Aggression Replacement Therapy (ART) is an evidence-based intervention that utilizes a parental component that entices parental involvement with the agreement that the affected youth will be suspended or disciplined for a shorter duration (McGinnis, 2003, p. 164)."

The premise for utilizing programs targeted at pre-delinquent youth and including their families is to prevent the draw of social inclusion toward negative peer influences. The PAL program boasts success by providing at risk youth with positive adult mentors and peer interaction and is one of only two prevention initiatives identified in the Boyle Heights GRYD program. For a community that has such a high incidence of gang involvement, this is insufficient. Therefore, it is reasonable to enlist the inclusion of family members so that a parent or caregiver could also provide youth with a positive and nurturing adult role model. This in conjunction with a culture of positive peer influences in the school setting might prove to provide a positive trajectory for youth to attain a healthy, educated and successful start toward a safer and more productive future for them and for their community.