The Santa Monica City Council unanimously voted to continue funding a youth center run by Board of Education member Oscar de la Torre. Funding was granted through the end of June in an attempt to give the community more input into how best to serve its young people.
All seven council members hung on until almost 3 a.m. Wednesday to direct city officials to engage with the community to find the best way to serve nearly 50 at-risk youth currently seeking services at the Pico Youth & Family Center, an organization that has come under fire for management and fiscal problems.
At the same time, the center will continue to receive taxpayer funds through the end of the fiscal year as City Hall uses the information gathered at the community meetings to seek proposals from the nonprofit world on how best to meet those needs.
PYFC is not out of the running for the work, but would need to show that it could meet the reporting and management requirements necessary to receive public funds, said City Manager Rod Gould.
The motion represented an about-face on the part of city officials, which had put together a scathing report on the condition of PYFC, a 10-year-old organization formed to support mainly minority teens and young adults at risk of falling in with gangs. The center was born following a period of intense gang violence that took the lives of several local youth.
The original staff report recommended defunding the program, which receives over $300,000 a year from a $7.4 million annual program that supports 29 nonprofits throughout Santa Monica.
Officials reported that the organization had failed to meet the requirements of a “Last Chance Agreement” offered up in June of last year in the face of administrative failures and the weakness of financial controls at the center, and cited the recent departure of half of its board members and its office manager as a sign of structural instability.
Instead, officials said that other organizations already operating in the community could be brought into the same physical space now occupied by the PYFC to continue offering services to its roughly 50 clients.
Executive Director and founder de la Torre, who was the center of much of the criticism, disputed those facts, and offered to prove to the City Council that his organization had made real strides in the six months it had during the Last Chance Agreement.
“The thing that’s most hurtful is that people would straight up lie,” de la Torre said.
He accused an independent monitor of distorting the facts to tarnish PYFC’s reputation, something which he claims forces inside City Hall have been trying to do ever since it was founded. The center’s focus on social justice and activism, he says, has angered more conservative members of the community.
What became clear as Tuesday faded into Wednesday was that despite any administrative problems or internal strife PYFC may have experienced in the recent past, it had won the hearts and minds of its clients and the Pico Neighborhood, where some residents feel they have been marginalized by City Hall.
The vote came at 2:45 a.m. Wednesday morning, what some believe is the latest City Council meeting in at least 14 years. The item did not get called until midnight. Despite that, almost 60 supporters of PYFC, including many of its clients and staff in striking black and gold T-shirts stayed to impress upon the City Council the difference that the organization has made in their lives.
Chris Nunez, who has been going to the center for at least three years, said that it provided him with stability and support that kept him out of prison and away from drugs.
“I never thought I could do something constructive with myself until I went to the PYFC,” Nunez said. “They became my family.”
Gould, the target of much criticism and accusations of racial bias, said that the display of support had swayed his staff to change its plans to serve the target population.
“We have been impressed, if not inspired by the testimony given this evening,” Gould said.
Moved they might be, but the reprieve came with a warning.
“Each of the nonprofits is not only required to provide services, but report outcomes and effects and account for them properly,” Gould said. “It should be possible for PYFC to do both.”