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Pico Center Staves off Eviction

By Oliver Lukacs
Staff Writer

September 1 -- In an eleventh-hour turn of events, the City’s only grassroots center for gang members and at-risk youth staved off imminent eviction after the organization overseeing its operation delayed a decision to break ties with the year-and-a-half-old group.

The Woodcraft Rangers' decision to temporarily stay on board will give the Pico Youth and Family Center time to bring in a replacement for the LA-based non-profit organization hired by the City to funnel its $289,000-per-year grant to the center.

Without the Woodcraft Rangers, which pays the rent on behalf of the center, the landlord would have evicted the program from the storefront it leases at 828 Pico Boulevard on August 30, disrupting services.

Oscar de la Torre, the center’s founder and executive director, said he was “glad that Woodcraft Rangers had a change of heart,” but added that threatening to close the center until two days before eviction was “unethical,” and compared it to putting “a gun to our head.”

“I don’t think that it’s honorable to threaten much-needed services for the community," said de la Torre, who is a School Board member. "I don’t think that it’s honorable and fair. Why wait for the last minute? Why threaten closure? I think it should have been extended a long time ago.

“To put a gun to our head and threaten closure, to me that’s unethical. But these are things we have to go through in life. I am just happy that I get to continue doing the good work that we do in the community.”

The Rangers -- which received approximately $58,000 a year from the City to help the fledgling center get on its feet -- agreed to extend its contract until the Public Health Foundation takes over, which is expected to take about six-weeks. The foundation was tapped after months of negotiations between the non-profit, the City and the center’s advisory board.

In a press release issued Thursday, the president of the Woodcraft Rangers board of directors said the group is "pleased" with the choice.

“We are pleased that Public Health Foundation has agreed to take over the helm and are confident that they will help PYFC achieve its non-profit status and continue to offer its much needed services to Santa Monica’s young adults,” said Kathy Pinckert.

The non-profit -- which serves approximately 8,000 at-risk youth throughout Los Angeles County -- originally broke from the Pico Center, citing an organizational restructuring that no longer made the Pico program a “good match.”

“Woodcraft Rangers decision to step down,” Rangers CEO Cathie Mostovoy said in the press release, “was centered around the fact that we had recently restructured to enhance the programs we offer youth, ages 6-18."

As part of the plan, the group will serve eight new schools starting in August, bringing to 31 the total of schools it serves in Los Angeles County, she added.

Rangers officials said they gave the center enough time to secure its own stand-alone non-profit status.

“As of June 30, 2003, the Pico Youth and Family Center had still not filed its 501 (c)(3) papers, contrary to what we had been told in the past," Mostovoy said. "That’s when our Board determined that it was not in Woodcraft Rangers best interests to continue managing the contract, and responded by giving proper and timely notice to the stakeholders.”

“All during this time,” Pinckert said, “we kept an ongoing dialogue with the City and PYFC’s advisory board. At their request, we agreed that Woodcraft Rangers would continue on for an additional 60 days in order to give them more time to identify another agency to accept a contract for July 2003-04.”

De la Torre, however, has said that the non-profit’s decision to split was “irresponsible” and that the timeframe for the center to achieve its independent status was “unrealistic.” He also alleged that the Rangers were pulling out because the City turned down its request to fund another program.

De la Torre said that he was not informed of or invited to any discussions regarding the extension and had not received a copy of the Rangers' press release. But the important thing, he added, is that the center’s doors will remain open.

“I believe in the end we are all in this to help the youth, and closing the center even temporarily was never an option for the community, even if it means that I have to operate out of a garage,” he said.

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