Gangstas in Paradise

Galveston has beautiful beaches, the Strand and Moody Gardens. North of Broadway it has the projects, crippling poverty and big-city problems. And now the bad guys are back.

Ask club president Johnny Enriquez, and he'll tell you there's a direct correlation between the drop in social program funding and the rise in gangs and juvenile crime. The Island Youth Programs, which drew together social services groups, the city, the Galveston school district and the University of Texas Medical Branch paid attention to these kids and intervened as problems developed. But by the end of the 1990s, when it seemed like the gang problem had disappeared, almost all the funding was pulled.

"In the '90s we had an endless stream of funding. We're facing a $40,000 to $50,000 deficit this year. The community, society got relaxed. I said several years ago in '96 when we had the big funding cut [from the Moody Foundation] that this would happen," Enriquez says.

In its heyday, the Galveston Boys and Girls Club got a lot of recognition. "We showed the state how it should be done," Enriquez says. "We had people visit us from New York, L.A., the Valley; the Great Cheyenne Nation came down to see our programs."

Gang members can’t bring their colors into the dance.
Deron Neblett
Gang members can’t bring their colors into the dance.

Now the problems are back. There isn't enough to do in Galveston, and there isn't enough attention being paid to these kids, Enriquez says. With the dance and the other programs, Enriquez tries to cut into the gangs' recruiting base.

Punishing them with prison hasn't done them or the island any good, Enriquez says.

"In all honesty, we spend $90,000 over three years to send them to prison, and the only thing they come out to do is become better gangsters. I know they're going to be harder to catch."

Club programs are designed to hold the kids accountable rather than punish them, he says. It was the same kind of program that helped him when he was one of seven children growing up in a housing project, before he went on to serve in Vietnam.

Enriquez runs through his former programs like a list of beloved family members wiped out in an earthquake. The truancy program freed officers from four to five hours of paperwork; instead they brought truants to the club to handle.

In the "Child in Need of Supervision" program, kids with more than three Class C misdemeanors were referred to the club before they moved on up the chain. The Boys and Girls Club hired police officers to supervise community service. Police would pick up the no-shows in a patrol car, making an indelible impression.

In Teen Court, students would be not only sentenced but asked to return to serve on the court. In "Second Chance," counselors went to the homes of youths in danger of being incarcerated, the ultimate salvage effort.

Galveston City Manager Steve LeBlanc agrees the city had a lot more social programs in the past, but he's not sure of their effectiveness.

"A lot of these programs were paying administrative salaries that were not going into effective programs. Four to five years ago the council did a complete 180. No more administrative payments would go out to social service agencies," LeBlanc says. "They really weren't doing things other than pay their own salaries. They would hire themselves and two staff people and not do a whole lot that was effective."

Instead, LeBlanc says, the city went to the immediate community and asked what they wanted, and the answer was streetlights and sidewalks. The city demolished crack houses, built basketball courts, instituted community policing and set up a program to encourage first-time home buyers.

"Now we've gone through a complete cycle of that. The pendulum has swung, and we need more of a balance. We don't know what that is going to develop into." One thing he does know is that this won't be solved by just throwing more police at it.

The city has devoted ample attention to gangs in recent weeks, holding and trying to hold community meetings, which can be tricky. "Things are going slowly," gang specialist Bankston says. "One meeting was at a church. Well, the Crips didn't show because they didn't want to be preached at. The next meeting was on 43rd, where no Bloods would show up because it was the Crips' territory."

Gang members who've shown at meetings say their civil rights are regularly violated by police, that there's not enough to do in Galveston, there are few jobs and the city should give them another chance.

The city has started a midnight basketball program on Saturdays, but attendance has been lackluster. The city is alternating sites between the turfs of the Bloods and the Crips. Bankston says that until they get the gang leaders to buy into midnight basketball, it just won't work. "You can go and pull a few gang kids in, but you need to get the leaders," he says. LeBlanc says simply that if no one shows up, they'll switch to something else.

With Community Development Block Grant money, the City Council plans to develop something recreational or educational in the Carver Old Center area. A new rec center is planned to replace the Wright Cuney center, built in the 1940s for army reservists.

Enriquez agrees the city is making efforts. "The problem I see is territorial. You're not going to get a gang member to go to another neighborhood." He also is frustrated about the funding shortages, especially when he thinks about the extremely wealthy people who also live on Galveston.

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