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Why 'Boutique' Social Services Make Sense

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In a budget crisis, youth programs are targeted for cuts but their payoff is substantial

A six-year-old girl looks up and tells Rico Riemedio that the lizard she’s holding in her hands is poking her skin with its fingernails. Riemedio, who spent 25 years in state prison and just got off parole, tells her that if she puts the reptile on the lapel of her sweater, it will use its claws to hold on. The girl tries it, and it works. She leaves the room smiling, arms out like she’s walking a tightrope: “Thank you, Rico!”

Riemedio has been out five years and is now a case manager for United Playaz (U.P.), a nonprofit youth-leadership and violence-prevention program housed in a nondescript South of Market building. Several U.P. staff members are former prison inmates and ex-gangbangers. Riemedio’s caseload consists largely of teenagers who are failing out of high school or already locked up in juvenile hall, but he says U.P.’s in-school and afterschool programs for elementary-age children are part of the violence prevention strategy, too.

“We want to get to the kids when they’re young,” he says, heating up bologna-and-cheese sandwiches in a toaster oven for snack time, “so when they’re older and maybe on the street, we already have a relationship with them.”

U.P. is the type of community-based non-profit that is often in the firing line when city officials are looking for budget cuts. Critics complain that the city spends too much money on too many nonprofit programs, and that some wastefully duplicate services.

Maria Su, the head of San Francisco Department of Children, Youth and their Families (DCYF), told the San Francisco Chronicle last month that “…we fund a lot of boutique programs. And I don’t believe our kids are that “boutique -y.”

Considering San Francisco’s diversity, though, it’s hard to imagine a more boutique-y city in the United States. And the thing about community-based organizations is that they are designed to serve the needs of unique populations.

Twelve blocks away from U.P. headquarters, gay and lesbian teens and young adults, some of them homeless, head into the San Francisco LGBT Center on upper Market St. to get a hot meal, a line on some housing or therapy, or an HIV test. On the surface, you couldn’t ask for a youth program that looks less like U.P. In a real way, though, the LGBT Center is focused on violence prevention, too.

According to a National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) report, 26 percent of LGBT youth are kicked out of their homes when they come out. Many end up in shelters or foster care, where an even larger percentage experience violent physical assaults because of their sexual orientations. Some bail out of the system altogether because they actually feel safer on the street.

“A lot of our youth have been kicked out of their homes,” says Roberto Ordenana, who oversees the center’s transitional-age youth program. “We all know the story of young people coming to the city looking for greater acceptance. They come here hoping San Francisco will be a place to be true to who they are.”

It doesn’t always end up that way.

Ordenana says 75 percent of his program participants have housing issues—couch surfing, living in shelters, sleeping in parks or doorways. Ordenana’s program uses weekly Tuesday Meal Nights to hook young people up with housing and mental health services that can help keep them off the streets.

Both U.P. and the LGBT Center hire staff that can relate, through experience, to some of the issues their participants face. They employ holistic approaches to issues around violence, education, substance abuse and physical and mental health.

“To me, violence is a mental health issue,” says Rudy Corpuz Jr., who founded U.P. 16 years ago after gang tensions led to a violent incident at Balboa High School. “Post-traumatic stress disorder. That’s one of the things a lot of people don’t see. Violence is not a normal thing for kids. Just because it’s happening in the hood doesn’t make it normal.”

Both programs were also hit with six-figure funding decreases earlier this year when DCYF announced $6 million in cuts to nonprofits across the city. The board of supervisors negotiated add-backs last week that could result in funding restorations for both programs, but the process has been challenging.

“We call it the dance,” Debbi Lerman says, adding that fiscal limbo is a stressful fact of nonprofit life during the city’s budget cycle. Lerman is administrator of the San Francisco Human Services Network (SFHSN), an association of nonprofit agencies. “Every year we go through this (cuts) and then the board adds it back.”

Steve Fields, co-chair of the committee that governs SFHSN and director of the Progress Foundation, believes the annual rigmarole of nonprofits hobnobbing and testifying at city hall to secure funding amounts to little more than a demoralizing short-term fix.

“The add-back process can sometimes exacerbate the divide between agencies,” Fields says. “It’s one of the most inefficient and frustrating ways to make these critical decisions, although without that option in the system, many critically needed programs would not be saved.”

Lerman and Fields acknowledge that San Francisco’s abundant pool of social services is expensive. Both would like to see a streamlining of nonprofit services, particularly at the administrative level, but not at the expense of programs that effectively address San Francisco’s complex diversity of needs.

“It’s all about cultural competence,” Lerman says. “That’s why nonprofits are so successful.”

Fields agrees: “What looks like duplication of services is often responses to different parts of a problem. We have families that receive help across five departments. These services are all connected and we need to look at them the same way in the political arena.

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