Suddenly This Summer

Alice Valdez waited in vain. The executive director of Multicultural Education and Counseling Through the Arts expected 120 children to show up for the start of summer programs June 19. Those children arrived. But also due to arrive were 54 teenage students to work as counselors, office help and mural painters. HoustonWorks, a nonprofit screening and placement agency, and one of its subcontractors promised to supply the student workers. As late as Friday, the subcontractor assured Valdez that teens would show up for work that Monday.

Valdez waited and waited. Only three student workers arrived.

MECA was not the only agency left out in the cold. Community groups across the city that contract with HoustonWorks as youth employers didn't see any student workers. At the Tejano Center for Community Concerns, an expected 60 to 100 students were no-shows. At Talento Bilingue de Houston, Richard Reyes canceled some summer classes after he learned that none of the 15 students he had asked for would be sent to work in the office and classrooms. Left without a choice, he cut activities from a full day to only half a day.

HoustonWorks blames the worker shortage on cuts in congressional funding, yet the organization has known since the beginning of this year that money would drastically decrease. So why did it wait until the last minute -- in some cases the first day of the programs -- to notify the work sites?

"That's a good question," says Vincent Tran, supervisor of program marketing for HoustonWorks. He told the Houston Chronicle nearly a month ago that the agency would be able to serve only 2,000 teens this year instead of the usual 5,000 because of decreased funds. "We do try our best to provide them with the kids. I'm not sure why they were notified late."

Valdez, Reyes and other community leaders want an answer. Reyes says HoustonWorks officials have not returned his repeated phone calls. Valdez says she could have prepared for the shortage if only she had been warned. "It seems to me that if they know that well in advance, that they can say, 'We can only give you five people,' " she says. "Then we have time, as nonprofit agencies, to look for other private funding to fund the youth workers."

Richard Farias, president of Tejano Center, says his organization had formed a partnership with Houston Community College to enroll the students in technology classes and let them repair computers. "There would have been 60 to 100 kids that we don't have to worry about them getting into some kind of criminal act like theft or whatever. It's another added burden to these families having a hard time making it. That's the sad part about it," he says.

For the past 36 years the federal government has subsidized jobs for low-income students through the Summer Youth Program under the Job Training Partnership Act. But two years ago the Republican-controlled Congress approved the Workforce Investment Act, which funds year-round job programs. The new act began this year, ending summer job programs for teens across the country.

Part of the reason that work sites may not have been notified sooner is that the money passes through many hands before it gets to the student. The federal government gives the funds to the states, which in Texas go to the Texas Workforce Commission, which then passes the money to area boards such as the Houston Galveston Area Council. The HGAC, which covers 13 counties, reviews bids from nonprofit groups and parcels funds to six groups, of which HoustonWorks is the largest. HoustonWorks in turn interviews students and processes their applications, eventually placing students in jobs. It also subcontracts with other agencies such as the Educational Learning and Enrichment Center (ELEC), which had promised to deliver 30 of the 54 students to MECA.

Still, the trickle-down of funds is no excuse for not telling MECA about the shortage until the day the students were to arrive. HGAC program manager Mike Temple says his agency knew in January that there would not be enough funds available and contacted its six contractors, including HoustonWorks. Last year HGAC received $16 million to serve 9,000 kids for the summer. This year it acquired the same amount to fund a year-round program, which means only 5,000 students will get summer jobs.

"The economy has been good enough here that many youths, particularly the older youths, can go to work in private jobs, and they don't need subsidized work," Temple says. "It's the younger ones who really need it. Fourteen- and 15-year-olds are difficult for employers to hire."

Zeke Romo, director of the workforce at SER Jobs for Progress of the Texas Gulf Coast, one of the six groups that contract with HGAC, says he planned for the shortage and that none of the agency's work sites suffered. But HoustonWorks says it was counting on additional funding.

Pointing to a letter that Mayor Lee Brown wrote to U.S. Senator Phil Gramm, Tran says that HoustonWorks was waiting on Congress to consider supplemental funds to help ease the shortfall.

"We were waiting as long as we can to operate the Summer Youth Program. And we couldn't wait any longer. What we did is cut it close, and some of the sites did get notified late, but that's what happens when there is additional money being worked on. And it's still being worked on in the Senate. In the past we've received funding as late as June," Tran says.

ELEC director Lois Bullock doesn't blame the worker shortage on funding, but on students who drop out of the program to find other jobs or to take a vacation. She didn't seem to know if her agency had even contacted the youth employers.

"I'm glad this was brought to our attention, the ones that weren't getting kids," Bullock said. She promised to order her staff to look into the problem. Late last Thursday ELEC told MECA that it would be sending 16 students on Monday. But Talento Bilingue's Reyes will have to do without the 15 student workers he was expecting.

"It just messes up programming in all sorts of ways. They're very demanding about having our information on time," he says of HoustonWorks. "They do this every year. Ever year they promise X number of kids, and they give us half. Every year it's this little game we play with them, and they play it every summer. This year it's been a lot more drastic. Someone has to be held accountable."

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