It's easy for kids to get lost in Monterey County's most dangerous neighborhood.
Thursday, April 24, 2003
Photos by Randy Tunnell
The East Salinas neighborhood demarcated as Census Tract 7 is very young--when
school lets out, kids fill the sidewalks. These youngsters peer over a fence at a street-
side shoe sale behind an abandoned police substation. Last summer, a 15-year-old
girl named Marisol Navarette was shot in the forehead and died around the corner
from the substation.
Part 1 in a series Census Tract 7: A Special Report
Jesus rode a bike across the parking lot behind the church. He snaked through the metal gate, around the basketball hoop with a shattered plastic backboard and into the courtyard of a building painted institutional green. He steered one-handed because he had a keyboard as long as his leg under one arm.
He''d borrowed the instrument from Carlos for the night, and now he was bringing it back so they could hook it up to the speakers again. That he''s bringing it back is not nothing. Not because of anything about Jesus, but just because things tend to disappear around here.
Jesus had not budged from that keyboard the day before. He laid down beat after beat in the one little room they''ve set aside for making music at the center in East Salinas known as Safe Haven.
"He spent two hours just playing that thing," says Carlos Vargas. "If I had 300 bucks we could set up a great sound system. Problem is I don''t have 300 bucks."
The teenagers at Safe Haven--mostly boys aged 13 to 17--call Vargas "DK," for Donkey Kong, because when the low-slung broken basketball hoop was working, he dunked over their heads. Vargas is friendly and patient with teenagers who can at times be neither. He''s a diehard Santana fan who grew up in Morgan Hill. He wants to bring more girls into the Safe Haven by offering ballet class, if he can only find a volunteer ballet instructor.
At Safe Haven he tends to about 20 kids who come every day after school. His job is to protect them by giving them something to do, to provide a "haven from the dangers out in the neighborhood." In the green building they play basketball and foosball; there''s a sparse lounge they call the kickback room, a large space for karate and maybe someday a ballet class, a semi-functional computer room, a weight bench they pull out into the courtyard. And in one room, the keyboard and speakers.
Vargas tried to take the kids out of Safe Haven to play soccer once, but there was trouble right away. They were stalked by some apparent gang members, three of them in a convertible.
"He made a U-turn and came back. Then another U-turn," Vargas says.
At one point, one of the young men in the car menaced them by holding up his arms and shrugging his shoulders in a gesture that, in East Salinas, means: are-we-gonna-get-it-on-or-what?
"Thank God the kids didn''t do anything," Vargas says. "They don''t need any more trouble."
Vargas runs the program at Safe Haven through a local community outreach organization called Barrios Unidos. It''s part of a U.S. Dept. of Justice initiative called Weed and Seed, which is administered through the city parks and recreation department.
Weed and Seed was dreamed up during the first Bush administration to erase blight and prevent crime in the poorest, most troubled quarters of America''s cities. There are more than 300 Weed and Seed programs across the U.S., located everywhere from Akron, Ohio and Alachua County, Florida to Trenton, New Jersey, and Tupelo, Mississippi and Winslow, Arizona.
In Salinas, the targeted neighborhood is a square half-mile area of the Eastside where many agricultural workers live. It''s demarcated on government maps as Census Tract 7, or CT 7. It is the poorest, most densely populated, and at times most violent place in Monterey County.
With federal money granted through the Department of Justice, a program known as Weed and Seed was set up in East Salinas and specifically targets Census Tract 7, a one-half-square-mile area with about 15,000 residents. Here kids gather after school at Safe Haven, a recreation center designed to keep teens out of street gangs.
On color-coded demographic maps, CT 7 consistently shows up as a block of dark red. According to the 2000 census, some 27 to 35 percent of the residents live below the federal poverty level, which means an annual income of less than $17,000 for a family of four. Forty to 45 percent of the 14,189 residents are under age 19--a third of the 16-to-19-year-olds have dropped out of school or are not enrolled. Two-thirds of the adults have less than an eighth-grade education.
Census Tract 7 leads the county--and most of the state and the nation--in unemployment, with levels up to 26 percent at certain times of the year.
Despite the fact that shiny new developments with fancy names are sprouting up to its east and north, the conditions in Census Tract 7 are blamed largely on the fact that it is a poor human habitat. Besides being densely crowded, the neighborhood is cut off from the rest of the city by train tracks and the interstate. To the north a dry lake bed forms one barrier while agricultural fields spread out like a sea to the south.
The housing is described officially as "extremely dense," with 30 percent of the homes containing seven or more people, often in one or two bedroom apartments. There are fewer housing units than there were 10 years ago, but 3,000 more people.
There are roughly the same number of people in CT7 as in the entire city of Pacific Grove, living in an area about one-sixth the size, and hemmed in by lettuce fields and Highway 101 instead of woods and beaches.
As one charity worker who''s familiar with the area put it: "This is the worst housing in the county, except for a few labor camps."
The asphalt borders of CT 7 are Rider Avenue on the north, Garner Avenue to the west, Williams Road on the south and an artificial line on the east that slices through the grounds of Alisal Union School, Cesar Chavez School, La Paz School and Frank Paul School. Safe Haven falls just outside the limits of Census Tract 7 but it''s a component of the Weed and Seed initiative that targets the area.
East Salinas is a contradiction. During the week, at three in the afternoon, it''s teeming with children. When school lets out, the streets are flooded with kids of all ages, often led by mothers pushing strollers. The parks like Closter Park fill up and buzz with movement. Agricultural workers return home from the fields or packinghouses still wearing rubber boots, hard hats and veils.
For a few hours, the place feels vibrant. Yet the bustle and youth of the area is deceptive. East Salinas, and Census Tract 7 within it, has a nasty and violent gang infection that won''t go away.
Over the last 10 years, 20 murders have occurred in CT 7. In the same period it has also lead the city in what police classify as gang-related crime. In 2001 there were 194 violent crime incidents in the small area. In 2002 there were six assaults with firearms, 26 assaults with a deadly weapon, 16 attempted murders, 111 burglaries, two murders and 10 robberies.
Lt. Henry Yoneyama, who runs the city''s anti-gang squad known as the Violence Suppression Unit (VSU), says the violence occurs in places like East Salinas because it''s densely populated and relatively poor.
"Salinas is not unique," he says. "This is not Mogadishu. But I won''t tell you we don''t have a gang problem in Salinas. And it is considerable."
As of March 2003, despite every effort, the anti-gang squad counted roughly 3,000 gang members in Salinas. Those are the ones they know about.
At Safe Haven, neighborhood teens come by after school for basketball, games, boxing and karate class. They also hang out in what they call the "kickback room." The point of the program is to keep them off the street and it''s clear why. There isn''t much to do, and older youths can be found all day sitting around the neighborhood.
Weed and Seed is deliberately named. Under the Weed element, police task forces, bolstered with federal dollars and help from the FBI, DEA, INS and ATF, "weed" out criminal organizations and drug dealers. With Weed and Seed money, the Salinas Police Department bolstered the VSU and focused it on CT 7. The city police were also supposed to staff extra officers for overtime duty. In addition, a retired cop whose beat was the Eastside now works part-time as a code enforcement officer specifically for CT 7--his job is to remove abandoned cars, of which there are hundreds a year.
Under the Seed component, the community would get help through outreach, beefed-up social programs, a neighborhood watch, citizen police academy and after-school recreation. Painting over gang tags, arresting criminals, uprooting blight, sponsoring clean-up-the-neighborhood days, and getting kids "off the street" is the aim of the Weed and Seed program. It was funded at about $250,000 per year.
The cornerstone is a council of representatives from the district attorney''s office, Salinas City Council, the police department, the parks department and charitable foundations. The group meets regularly to discuss each program element, and there have been some successes. But that progress is likely about to stop.
At the meeting on March 5, the news was grim: Weed and Seed in Salinas is over. Terry Spitz, deputy district attorney, chaired the meeting and began with news that supplanted the agenda.
"At this point the program essentially comes to an end in September," he said.
As grant programs usually go, the city could be expected to pick up where the federal government leaves off when the grant wears out. But cities and counties all over California are being forced to cut back heavily from almost every program.
City manager Dave Mora has a dire prognosis for Weed and Seed. With revenues flat for the first time in six years, and none of the fat income that cities like Monterey enjoy from tourist dollars, Salinas will be looking at lean times.
"The City Council has asked what we can do to hold on to it," Mora said in March. "Quite frankly, given the economic situation, I don''t think we''ll be able to do it."
The problems are much larger than East Salinas. A lot of the problem goes back to Washington, DC and beyond.
"Resources are being pumped into this war effort or Homeland Security at the expense of other programs," Mora says. "And don''t forget the tax cuts."
Last week, Weed and Seed got a stay of execution. The City Council budget committee gave preliminary approval to siphon $111,000 in Community Development Block Grant money to keep Weed and Seed half-alive for another year, on 44 percent of its previous funding. A final decision by the City Council is expected on May 6.
In East Salinas, the Safe Haven prong of the Weed and Seed program aims to prevent kids like Jesus from joining the city''s murderous street gangs. But for some of the kids who hang out at Safe Haven, it''s too late.
In social-work-speak they are beyond the "prevention" stage. Instead, Safe Haven is an "intervention" program.
Everything seems to working against Safe Haven, even now when it''s still open. On the day Jesus rode through the gate, it was the paint that was working against it.
In mid-March, Carlos Vargas told the kids that they couldn''t come around for a week because it needed to be painted. After several changes in management, Barrios Unidos had just taken over Safe Haven, and Vargas and his boss, Antonio Avalos, wanted to spruce it up a bit.
The outside walls were polluted with gang tags and so was the inside of the courtyard. The kids who show up every day weren''t particularly interested in helping. Vargas tried to put paint rollers in their hands but they wanted to get out the boxing gloves, shoot hoops or just grab-ass.
They''d been coming to Safe Haven since it opened back in 1999 and it has become their unofficial clubhouse. At some point during the week when the kids were told to stay away, someone tagged Iglesia Luterena El Buen Pastor Church, located in front--the Safe Haven building is church property and the congregation gets a stipend from the city. While the old tags were being painted over, someone threw some new ones on the church. They spray-painted "Mr. Happy" and "BCB" in a little patio area where the kids hang out. It''s not clear what "Mr. Happy" means exactly but depending on who you believe, BCB might mean "Brown Clique Boys," or "Beech Clique Boys," the nomenclature of a street-gang subset--a junior varsity.
One counselor at Safe Haven said the kids may or may not be gangster wannbes, but they''re certainly in danger.
"They''re trying to start a little gang," said Juan Flores. "That''s how it all starts."
That the kids in Safe Haven might be gang-affiliated comes as no surprise. Gang prevention is the whole point of Weed and Seed. If they''re in Safe Haven, they''re not on the street. If they''re not on the street, they''re not out on the battleground between two violent street gangs with a chain of command that ties right into California''s prisons.
It''s a grudgingly accepted fact that the main gang rivalry in Salinas simmers and flares between those affiliated as Nortenos, or northerners, and those who "claim" Sureno, or southerners. Although the demarcation between the groups carves a fuzzy line--rivals can be neighbors and family members--the clearest, most common denominator is by color. Nortenos wear red, and Surenos wear blue. (The street gangs have their roots in prison gangs and the colors date back to a time when the state pen issued red and blue bandanas. The similarly color-coded Crips and Bloods reportedly came later.)
Numbers are also used as identifiers. The number 13, often written in a half-Roman numeric X3, is associated with Surenos because they are associated with the Mexican Mafia prison gang (M being the 13th letter of the alphabet). Nortenos go with 14, because "N" is the 14th letter.
Sports team-gear is appropriated for color-coded uniforms. Although you won''t find many Cornhusker fans in East Salinas, the red ball cap with big "N" for Nebraska is popular among those who claim Norteno. Today there are parts of Census Tract 7 where you will not see young men wearing any other color baseball hat but blue and the color red is totally absent. San Francisco 49ers regalia are code for Norte, and Dallas Cowboys gear is code for Sur. In some stores on the East Side you might think there are only three teams in the NFL: the Raiders, the Cowboys and the 49ers.
The smaller neighborhood gangs claim affiliation to one side or the other. Generally Norteno members have been in America longer while the Surenos are generally Mexican-born new arrivals.
Boys and young men in East Salinas who are affiliated will ask one another "Where are you from?" It''s a question meaning "Do you claim red or blue?" but often a response is not needed.
As one city gang investigator related, if the question is asked, you''re a target whether the perception of affiliation is real or not. "They don''t wait for an answer. They don''t even care."
There are some infamous gangs in Salinas--Vagos, East Las Casitas (ELC), the Pistoleros, Madeira Barrio Locos (MBL), and Elkington, which is named for a street right in the heart of CT 7.
The rivalry has made the East Side an occasional war zone, worse before Weed and Seed was put in place but still bad. The kids in Safe Haven are not immune.
East Salinas is a world away from the Monterey Peninsula of Carmel and Pacific Grove. More than 80 percent of the population is Latino, and the marks of Hispanic culture are everywhere. CT 7 is also somewhat transient, with more people crowding in during harvest seasons.
Until it was painted over, the Safe Haven building was covered with Sureno tags including the BCB tag. The kids played dumb about it. They tell me it means "Burritos Control Burritos," or something like that. Whatever it means, the pastor didn''t like it on his church.
"We''re getting kicked out," Vargas says. "I can''t say if it''s our kids or not. But they''re the ones we want. The ones who don''t fit in anywhere else."
The ones who don''t fit anywhere else are rarely apart, and it''s been that way for years. Some days it''s a half dozen of them playing two-on-two or lifting weights at this quasi-clubhouse of theirs. They''ll hang out in small groups at Safe Haven for a while, then disappear, giggling together to go "out in the streets." Other times there are twenty or more in a pack, some on foot, others gliding around on low-slung dirt bikes.
"Their world is physical. They live in violence. Verbally they won''t respond sometimes," Vargas says. "Somewhere along the their lives, someone has given up on them and in way I don''t blame them because it is difficult."
Fridays draw a bigger crowd, usually with new faces. In the core group there''s Luis, Juan, Daniel, Jesus, Jose and few others. Some girls come around regularly. For a while, some younger girls came over from Rider Avenue, at the edge of CT 7, because they hoped it would be easier to do homework at Safe Haven. When asked what Rider Avenue is like their immediate response was "It''s mostly Norteno." They haven''t come around in a long time.
All but one of the boys has his hair cut high and tight, with the top long enough to slick back. Some attempt mustaches. They wear jeans or chinos and T-shirts or plaid shirts. If they''ve got on a color it''s blue, either in the plaid or blue in a Dallas Cowboys star, blue in shoelaces or a blue web belt. Red doesn''t happen.
They all live in the neighborhood where Closter Community Park on Towt Street--just across the street from Safe Haven--is the most prominent landmark. Every afternoon Closter Park swirls with action. Kids zoom around the playground; old-timers in straw hats sit watching from benches; boys and young men play basketball and soccer while ice cream vendors make regular orbits. Marijuana smoke is common and the park is peaceful enough to have a city recreation center full of little girls doing watercolor crafts.
Still, the youth and the seeming boundless activity is deceptive. East Salinas is not a bombed out inner city with prostitutes on the corners and open-air drug dealing. But at Closter Park not too long ago, someone was shot at and another got carjacked by a guy wielding a meat cleaver.
The kids at Safe Haven don''t hang out at the park. They stay at Safe Haven because it is in fact safer. Some of the kids complain that the men at the park are drunk or there''s too much drug use. Others say it''s because of the gangs. So when they get kicked out of Safe Haven for acting up or because it has to be painted, they come right back.
Even with the Weed and Seed initiative in place, killings, many of them gang-related, have not gone away. With the program in its fourth year, last March three youths were shot in a four-day period. Two teenagers ended up dead and an 8-year-old was shot in the back.
A year ago, on April 17, 18-year-old Michael Garcia was shot in the back by a 17-year-old in the CT 7 neighborhood where they both lived. The shooter, Michael Rivera, who faced charges as an adult and has since pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, thought Garcia was a Norteno. Rivera had been shot the month before just blocks away from the Safe Haven. He lost his liver to a bullet, and now he''s probably going to prison for 18 years.
When detectives arrested him in Yuma, Arizona last year they found insignia from Census Tract 7 gang subsets, according to court testimony.
On July 28, 2002, two young men were shot at from a passing car and suffered serious wounds while walking on Pacific Avenue near Del Monte. On the same day, blocks from the Safe Haven, a man driving his car was chased down by another car with three or four passengers who yelled at him, then fired a gun into his car. A bullet ended up in his neck.
On August 13, a Norteno shot at a rival Sureno who was sitting in a car with his girlfriend on Galindo Street. The boy was shot in the head and survived. His girlfriend was shot in the forehead and did not.
Later in August, a 15-year-old reported that he was chased down John Street near a rec. center similar to Safe Haven on Hebbron Street by an older teen wearing a Dallas Cowboys jacket. The older boy pulled a gun and fired, hitting the boy in the hand.
There was a triple murder on September 1, in which three teenagers were gunned down and died in a parking lot on Williams Road. A 16-year-old was eventually arrested for the killing of two 17-year-olds and an 18-year-old. According to a press account, the accused shooter had been shot at in August, but did not report the incident. The dead were suspected to be members of a rival gang, which was not identified.
Two months ago, in early February, two groups of young men ended up in an altercation at Garner and Sanborn in CT 7 when one group challenged another to claim gang affiliation. When the reply was negative, one victim had a bottle broken over his head and two others were believed to be stabbed.
Later in February, three teenagers were shot at in front of a house on Green Street. According to police, a car drove up and the "young male Hispanic occupants" asked what gang the three claimed. When they said they were not involved, two handguns were fired, hitting two of the boys in their feet.
On February 20, a 17-year-old was shot and killed while sitting in a car on Natividad Road. A suspect was arrested on March 31 at his mother''s house on Atlantic Street. On March 8, a man was stabbed in the abdomen on Cortez Street.
Despite all this, crime has dropped in Census Tract 7. Charts provided by the police department show reductions in homicide and other gang-related crimes. But even in a Weed and Seed progress report from January, the crime problem and subsequent police crackdown was readily acknowledged. After several homicides in Census Tract 7 last year, the police served several search warrants, turning up 14 guns and several arrests.
Although the city touts Weed and Seed as having had improved the targeted area of East Salinas, the program itself has bad problems. A recent independent evaluation, dated Oct. 15, 2002 was critical.
It was conducted by Dr. Robert Huitt, a senior research scientist for the Justice Research Center. He evaluates government programs of all kinds around the country from an office located above a cafe in Pacific Grove.
Huitt says the program was very unrealistic in its initial goals. Setting out to reduce violent crime by half and eradicate gangs in Census Tract 7 proved impossible. Huitt found that the "weed" element--breaking down doors, arresting drug dealers and gang members--got more emphasis than the "seed" effort, which he thinks suffers from a ill-defined mission compared to law enforcement.
"Rather than the 50 percent reduction and eliminating gangs, they have more realistic goals and objectives," he says.
Huitt says the goals of the program need to be defined more clearly.
One failure of the program Huitt highlights is the lack of extra police coverage. A plan to assign two extra patrol officers on weekend nights never really happened. A chart of law enforcement activity in Census Tract 7 for 2001 and 2002 shows whole months devoid of any records of extra Weed and Seed functions.
Citizens also did not pick up the slack. As part of the community-policing element of the program, Neighborhood Watch programs were attempted but "were unsuccessful because of apparent lack of interest."
Likewise, the city police attempted to set up a substation in a strip mall in the heart of Census Tract 7. Officers say they used it occasionally, but it''s been vacant long enough that dust has collected on the desktops and nobody can say when it was last open.
With the flow of federal money for such programs now all but cut off, Huitt doesn''t give it much hope for survival.
"My opinion is the prospects for continuing the program are bleak," he says.
At Safe Haven they know already it''s about to disappear, if not from the federal money drying up then because Pastor Ruben Escobar wanted them out. But even though the notion of expanding the program in Salinas is doomed, Olga Porter, the recreation coordinator for the city parks department, tries to improve things.
When they were trying to fix up the kickback room in March, she put an ad out for donated couches. When a city worker had one to give away she borrowed a city flatbed truck to fetch it and drop it off at Safe Haven.
Porter is realistic about the kids. It''s not as if there''s much mystery about them. She''s taken them on a ski trip to Lake Tahoe, she brings in a Tae Kwon Do teacher, and hopes to be able to take a trip with the kids to Disneyland this summer.
"They aren''t the best kids around but it doesn''t mean they can''t turn around," she says. "The key is exposing them to as much as you can, field trips or guest speakers or whatever. Then one of them will say, ''I want to be like that.''"
When the church got tagged last month, Porter had to go to the pastor to persuade him to let Safe Haven stay four more months. As of last week she took over management of Safe haven from Barrios Unidos
"They want the kids to behave but I explained that these are not conventional kids. These are already gang members. They are Surenos," she says. "They have no place to go. If it''s closed they will keep coming around. They will retaliate. When we closed last time we had eight windows broken."
Antonio Avalos runs the Barrios Unidos programs in East Salinas. "Kids growing up here, they''re desensitized to violence," he says. He''s talking about real violence, not virtual violence.
The head of Barrios Unidos is Antonio Avalos. He was born in Mexicali and came to the U.S. in the trunk of a car. A short, square, strong man of Indian ancestry, he can point to the spot in Census Tract 7 where he used to sell drugs. Toward the end of his outlaw days he got into fight that resulted in the last of many broken noses.
"Everybody is scared," Avalos says. "Our focus is here. We created a bubble. A safety zone."
He has mixed emotions about Weed and Seed. Ten years ago conditions in CT 7 were worse than now, but some of the difference is cosmetic, he contends. A controversial court order in 1997--the infamous gang injunction--dispersed many of the gang members in CT 7, but Avalos remains critical. "With everything they''ve put in there, it''s still the same," he says. "The only thing that''s different is the gangs aren''t hanging out on the corners."
He believes Weed and Seed needs a better outreach program.
"If you talk to the people, they don''t know," he says. "If they don''t know, how is that going to be beneficial?"
He runs an outreach program and contacts everyone in the neighborhood by knocking on doors and letting parents know what Barrios Unidos does.
He blames the problems in East Salinas on the environment and points to parks that have been developed or neglected, apartment buildings that are overcrowded, and an abundance of alcohol outlets. Latino gangster rap music that''s readily available in local stores is another problem. When he found one local boy had one of the discs he took it and broke it in pieces. He took a large kitchen knife off a 13-year-old. The boy told Avalos he had it because he was scared.
"Kids growing up here, they''re desensitized to violence. It does not feel the same," he says. "In the end abuse is abuse. If you see your dad beating your mom everyday, you learn that. You learn violence...They [the gangs] say it''s in the blood because they''re Aztec warriors. That''s bull. They learn it."
It''s true. The world of the kids at Safe Haven is very physical and constantly verges on violence. Strength and force earn respect. Basketball games are rowdy, there''s definitely a pecking order of physical dominance and tests of strength like push-up, chin-up and bench press contests will gather every curious face in Safe Haven. A Tae Kwon Do teacher comes in once a week and teaches some of the bigger kids technique for an hour at a time. There was a pair of boxing gloves at Safe Haven--one pair with the U.S. flag on the fist and the other with the Mexican flag. Matches spill out into the church parking lot and go on until someone gets stung.
That said, one of the other favorite activities at Safe Haven is just hanging out in the kickback room.
One day after they''d tried to plan a weekend party, some of the kids went outside to run around, but three of them stayed in the kickback room, sprawled out on the couches, talking. It was one of the few times I got a chance to carry on a conversation with any of them, much less three of them, for more than a few sentences.
Luis, 15 and Juan, 14 were both born in Mexico. Another boy Julio was also there but did not talk as much. Most of the kids at Safe Haven were born in Mexico and most go to Alisal High School. Luis lives on Green Street, right in the middle of CT 7. He''s at Safe Haven just about everyday. If it disappeared, he says he''d probably have nothing to do. His mom works in a fast food joint and his dad does something in San Jose--what, he''s not sure.
"I''d be out in the street. Just walking around," he says. "It''s not safe in the street. You could get shot or killed. A friend got shot. Two months ago. It was right by where I live."
When I ask them what they think about the gangs in the area, they look at each other but say nothing. Silence. It''s awkward for a few seconds. They look around and look down but say nothing whatsoever to a question about gangs.
Without any real answers coming forth, I ask them what they wanted to be when they grow up. Again, silence. They think about it for a bit then Luis offers: "The first thing, finish high school. Then maybe go to college."
I ask them what they might want to do for work. More silence and thinking.
"Yeah a mechanic. An auto shop."
Then Carlos Vargas comes in and clowns around with the kids, putting them in gentle headlocks. "You need love, Juan," he says to one. "You need love."
He also had to tell them it was time to go.
The thing is, Safe Haven is supposed to close down at 6pm and it was already 6:20. The place was still full of kids, outside playing basketball, in the kickback room, all over, even though it was getting dark.
No one wanted to go home yet. Ten more minutes go by with Vargas and the kids talking about having parent meetings, which none of the kids think their parents can attend because they either have two jobs or there are too many little brothers and sisters at home.
It gets past 6:30 and Vargas announces, "Time to go." And in unison, the kids in room reply, "Naaaaahhhhhh."
"We want to kick it here longer," Juan says. "It''s better here."
Vargas relents. "Ten minutes," he says.
Juan bargains, "Twenty. Make it twenty."
Julio, the quieter one, gets up to leave. He hasn''t said much through the conversation. He''s got on a black sweatshirt with the hood up. Earlier he''d said sarcastically that the Eastside is the safest place in Salinas. He was grinning.
Now he looks over and says, "It''s not good to live in East Salinas. There''s too many gang members." As he says it he''s got a big grin on his face.
Julio leaves the room to go outside where a wild basketball game is underway. It''s really too dark to play, and Vargas finally calls it quits. It''s almost 7pm and the kids get the picture. They leave together as usual out through the metal gate of Safe Haven and into the neighborhood. Pretty soon the place is empty and quiet again, as quiet as the day when Jesus showed up with the keyboard under one arm.
To Vargas it''s pretty simple why they don''twant to leave, why they come right back when he kicks them out and why they always ask him when exactly he''s coming back if he leaves.
"They don''t want to be on the street," he says. "It sucks out there."