By Ivette Lopez
for the Lookout
July 21, 2014 – On the storefront of the Pico Youth and Family Center in Santa Monica, beside iconic images of Malcolm X and Cesar Chavez, is a board that reads: “Burritos, $3.”
It is a sign that the funding the center at the corner of 6th Street and Lincoln Boulevard has always counted on will not be there soon.
|Photos by Ivette Lopez.
Last month, the City Council voted to reduce its financial contributions to the 12-year-old center from $225,000 last year to $193,000 this fiscal year. That’s nearly half of the $350,000 the center routinely received from the City during its first decade.
“I don’t mind us becoming less dependent on city dollars,” said Oscar de La Torre, the center’s executive director and a member of the School Board. “It’s unfortunate that in a very wealthy city like Santa Monica we’re being nickeled and dimed.”
So far, the center – which serves at-risk youth in the upscale beachside city -- has been operating thanks to a $1.6 million grant from the foundation of the late philanthropist Peggy Bergman, whose endowment gives the center 10 percent of the total amount each year.
The dwindling budget has forced the center to redirect much of its attention from youth services to fundraising.
To make ends meet, the center is selling food, hats and shirts with its logo and staging two gala events to raise much needed money, de la Torre said. The center will also invest in hiring grant writers.
De La Torre added that the center costs $250 a day to operate. He says that the total budget for this fiscal year is over $400,000, 44 percent of which is funded by the city. In comparison, last year the city funded 75 percent of the center’s budget, a 31 percent decrease in one year.
In the past 11 months, the PYFC has raised over $20,000 in private donations, according to De La Torre. Supporters have included Saint John’s Health Center, the Jane Fonda Family Foundation, Southern California Disposal and renowned salsa artist Oscar D’Leon, among others.
The budget cuts accompanied the City’s recommendation last year to turn the PYFC into a referral center and redirect many of its clients to other organizations, such as the Youth Resource Team comprised of all non-profits funded by the city.
It is a move center officials and its members have resisted.
“This is what I’m used to,” said Marcos Santana, a member of the center. “It’d be like displacing me from something that is already working for me.”
The center offers an array of activities to keep its young members busy. There is a music recording studio, art projects and workshops, tutoring and field trips to nearby college campuses.
For Monica Ramos, a member of the PYFC, the center is more than just a safe haven; it’s also a family.
“It feels like hanging with friends, but learning at the same time,” said Ramos. “They make you feel comfortable, help you with school problems and homework and distract you from work.”
Until the budget cuts, the center’s summer youth program gave Ramos and other members an opportunity to make money. Now that the positions have been eliminated, the center is helping students find summer work. Ramos has applied for summer jobs at Marshalls and TJ Max.
The diminished budget and orders from the city have also forced the PYFC to begin targeting a narrower clientele. Now, members must be residents of Santa Monica in order to receive services. In addition, the youth must attend Santa Monica district schools or be enrolled at Santa Monica College.
The City also wants the center to reduce its clientele and target youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who “are at risk for violence and incarceration.”
These would include between 50 and 75 older youth, including those involved in gangs, enrolled at Olympic High School and the Off Campus Learning Center and those who have dropped out or are at risk of dropping out of Santa Monica High School.
The City also has asked the center to target formerly incarcerated youth, including serious habitual offenders and those on parole or probation.
The funding cutbacks have reduced in the number of students the case manager will see from 30 to 15 and the center’s registered members from 240 in 2002 to 111 this year.
However, although counseling services and other activities are limited to residents, all youth are welcome anytime to use the computers or enjoy what the center has to offer.
The City’s cutbacks and recommendations cap a turbulent relationship with the center.
In 2012, the city gave the PYFC six months to fix the agency’s records, after finding “unexplained salary overages” for its top staff.
Among the irregularities was a duplicate payroll check payable to De La Torre, and an excess contribution of $12,171 dollars towards the retirement fund.
De La Torre says that the duplicate check was an error, due in part to miscommunication between the accountant and former office manager. The manager has since left the center.
De La Torre said the funds were returned promptly after the mistake was brought to the center’s attention. He shared his personal records, which show approximately $2,000 in his retirement account.
“If I was doing anything wrong, I wouldn’t be so obvious about it,” said De La Torre. “I would instead buy more toilet paper or something like that. I have everything documented and nothing to hide.”
Since the audit, the city mandated the PYFC to hire the services of the Social and Environmental Entrepreneurs (SEE), which oversees the financial operations of the non-profit. Since no formal contract has been signed with the City, the PYFC isn’t required to retain the services but continues to do so.
De la Torre questions the cutbacks and shift in services. “When you make these cuts so soon, you’re hoping these people won’t survive,” he said.
For donation inquiries and more information on fundraising events, visit www.picoyouth.org or contact the PYFC at 310-396-7101.