Opportunity knocks, but only lightly

By Michael Stoll, San Francisco Examiner, Sept. 3, 2002

Hundreds of teenagers in poor neighborhoods remain unemployed this fall because a multimillion-dollar training program has failed to deliver almost half the jobs and classes it promised.

Youth Opportunity San Francisco, which promotes itself under the hip, urbanesque moniker YO!SF, was supposed to put 1,500 youths into vocational programs by now.

But because of high leadership turnover, a buggy computer system and disputes with subcontractors over funding, as of the summer the program had accommodated only about 850 youths.

The remaining youths were extensively interviewed but wait for a response.

"I've been trying for at least three months to get a job with them, and they don't even call you," said Bayview resident Maurice Oliver, 15, who wants to be a pro basketball player or computer tech -- he hasn't decided which. Maurice participated in a three-month Youth Opportunity mentorship last spring that ended without a summer job placement. "I just keep hounding and hounding them."

Another 15-year-old Bayview youth, Tyrelle Taylor, is miffed by what he got: "Muni fast passes, that's it."

Neglected neighborhoods

Other frustrated teens, many of them graduated or otherwise done with school, have returned to hanging out on the street.

A few have resorted to selling drugs in the four impoverished census tracts where the grants were intended to help young workers lift themselves out of poverty.

Some have lost their lives in gang violence. On the streets of Bayview-Hunters Point alone this summer, four young people enrolled in Youth Opportunity were shot, and two died.

The Youth Opportunity program came to San Francisco after neighbors argued that gang killings in Bayview could be slowed if youths were occupied productively. Two years later, Bayview has the smallest Youth Opportunity presence.

In July, the two Bayview centers, at Milton Meyer gym and Gloria R. Davis Academic Middle School, were shuttered without explanation.

At those centers, guidance counselors regularly showed up for just three hours a day because there was no work to do, frequent visitors to the Bayview sites said.

When the two centers finally got computers for the kids early this year, one staffer installed a videogame called "Grand Theft Auto," although some of the older teens preferred to surf the Internet for porn.

Three other Youth Opportunity neighborhood centers finally are fully staffed and have couches, pool tables and wide-screen televisions. But they hardly bustle with neighborhood teens.

One problem is that they cannot participate until their paper case-management records are typed into a custom computer database. Youth Opportunity employees said they hoped to be up to date by this month -- too late for many youths returning to school after another unproductive summer break.

"It's been a stutter start," conceded Vivian Stern Turner, a member of the San Francisco Youth Council, which oversees the Youth Opportunity grants, "but it could be a really powerful program."

Spending bottleneck

Behind Youth Opportunity is the nonprofit Private Industry Council of San Francisco. The agency uses mostly government grants to train dislocated workers, the elderly, aid recipients and youth for new jobs.

It was awarded $28 million over five years by the Department of Labor to operate one of 36 Youth Opportunity programs in the nation. So far, at the start of the third year, more than half of the money sent to San Francisco has gone unspent.

Pamela S. Calloway, president of the Private Industry Council, declined several requests for an interview.

Raymond R. Holland, vice president for planning and legal affairs, said virtually all of the $14 million the organization got for the first two years has been "obligated" for youth programs, staff salaries and rent.

The last payment from the Department of Labor, in July, brought the total to $19.25 million. But the agency has "expended" only $8.6 million. The organization has refused to release detailed budget summaries for Youth Opportunity.

The Private Industry Council has three years left in the grant. The Department of Labor says it is monitoring the agency's slow spending, and warns that it could lose the money if it is not spent within three years. Whatever remains will go back to the federal treasury.

"They're not in a crisis stage by any means at this point," said Mason Bishop, a spokesman for the Department of Labor's Employment Training Administration. "But in the next year we would hope that expenditures start to catch up."

Bishop said that in about eight Youth Opportunity sites nationwide, the outcomes -- measured by the number of teenagers in training or with jobs -- have been disappointing.

One of those sites is San Francisco. Early this year, the department faulted the Private Industry Council for its low enrollment.

Bishop said poor performance here is one reason the Bush administration wants to kill the $223 million nationwide grant.

A slow start

Holland puts the onus partially back on the Department of Labor. He said the computer problems came from the government's stringent reporting standards. His organization had no choice but to create an expensive new database program from scratch, he said.

Glenda Gutierrez, the director of Youth Opportunity, said the geographic boundaries of the tiny opportunity zones were a major obstacle to recruiting participants because they were based on 1990 census tracts, each only a few square blocks. The SoMa zone, for example, ends a block east of the Valencia Gardens low-income housing project, so youth living there are ineligible.

Another problem is that participants must be citizens. That disqualifies legions of Latinos in the Mission.

"The wonderful thing about the grant is that, for once, you're given money for the whole child," Gutierrez said. "You can give them money for glasses and clothes for an interview. We can give them transportation and tutoring, scholarships.

"But," she added, "it's very specific kids."

Many of the problems with the program were homegrown, however.

When Gutierrez took over Youth Opportunity in November -- a year and a half after it started -- it had gone without a director for six months.

In the resulting leadership vacuum, say current and former staff of the Private Industry Council, no one could agree on which youth training programs to fund. So, very little got funded until January.

Gutierrez said it has been difficult finding office space in poverty-stricken neighborhoods. It would be counterproductive, she said, to set up neighborhood centers only to get evicted the next year.

Youth Opportunity economized by moving into schools and community centers. Gutierrez wants to build a network of youth guidance offices to last beyond the grant's five-year life.

"I think what they assumed was things could happen quicker," she said. "If you look at the gist of the project, we're creating sustainability."

What will happen when the money runs out in the summer of 2005? The Private Industry Council says it is working on other grants that will keep the program solvent, but has not identified those funding sources.

Changing lives

Critics readily acknowledge that Youth Opportunity has had some shining successes.

It is providing scholarships to send one young woman from Bayview to Clark University this fall. Another teen from Visitacion Valley is going to UC Berkeley, and several others are headed to City College.

More than 50 employers in the theater, construction, health care and multimedia fields are providing internships, and the Private Industry Council is paying their wages.

It is a program that is desperately needed in an economy in which youth employment has dropped to its lowest level in more than three decades. The government reports that just 38.7 percent of teens were employed in July, compared with 44.5 percent two years ago. The outlook in the Bay Area certainly is worse.

"We're making the best of a bad situation," said Dwayne Jones, executive director of Young Community Developers Inc., a subcontractor doing much of the job training and a Youth Council member.

"Unfortunately, it seems as if we're starting twice," he said. But, "outside of internal issues and concerns, the program has made some huge impacts."

In late June, Kim Mitchell of the nonprofit Together United Recommitted Forever, or TURF, held a graduation ceremony for 20 teenagers from the Sunnydale housing projects in Visitacion Valley.

They finished a three-month Youth Opportunity-funded class covering fitness, anger management, opening personal bank accounts and becoming entrepreneurs. The ceremony came complete with diplomas, hugs, flowers, cake and speeches about overcoming individual challenges -- teen pregnancy, drugs, failing grades.

But for two months after the next session was scheduled to start, 20 other teens remained in limbo. The $114,000 for the classes was put on hold because of an accounting question from the Private Industry Council.

"I knew when I got into this that it was kind of shaky, but I don't know if I'm going to have a job," one laid-off job counselor said. "We have a stack of applications this thick, but we don't have any place to send them."

A bad example

The Private Industry Council gives out money to subcontractors teaching life skills and job readiness, and subsidizes internships with private companies.

Agencies partnering with the Private Industry Council complain that youths approach them every day for internships, but leave empty-handed. Some teens have worked for nonprofits all summer without pay, and have not gotten their promised stipends because the funds have not materialized.

Subcontractors have not been reimbursed for services already rendered, paying thousands of dollars out of their pockets. Though the Private Industry Council says it has caught up from a slow first-year start, cash-strapped youth counselors still wonder aloud where the money is going.

Private Industry Council staffer Alfredo Fajardo said some subcontractors were overeager, and should not have proceeded without firm contracts for Youth Opportunity dollars.

Part of the problem is that the Private Industry Council awards many of the contracts quarterly instead of annually. When paperwork problems arise between three-month cycles, organizations find themselves without funding, and the job counselors unemployed.

Without the ability to plan, subcontractors have had to lay off many of their best employees. Nonprofit leaders say they have also set a bad example for youths seeking job stability.

"What are we supposed to tell these children?" said Anthony Muhammad, president of one nonprofit, New Direction 21st Century. "What are we supposed to tell their parents?"

E-mail: mstoll@sfexaminer.com


A critical audit

The federal Department of Labor reviewed San Francisco's Youth Opportunity program in January and said management problems ran deep in the organization. Among the findings of the audit:

  • Staff were not well trained on the custom eMae computer tracking system.
  • "Significant discrepancies" arose between official reports and services actually performed.
  • Staff did not listen closely enough to youths during intake interviews, making it difficult to recommend classes or internships.
  • Centers were not staffed late at night or on weekends.
  • Centers struggled to provide safe spaces for youths to hang out, seek guidance and meet for job training.