San Diego Youth Speak Out On How Budget Cuts Hurt Their Chances For Success
October 17, 2012 1:22 p.m.
Joni Halpern, director, Supportive Parents Information Network
Mark Dillon, vice-chair, San Diego Human Relations Commission
ST. JOHN: All our lives are affected by the economic downturn. But some of the people most affected by unbalanced budgets are kids. Tonight, a group of young people will make a presentation to the city's human relations commission to beg them to take a stronger stand for kids. Joni Halpern is the director of SPIN. Thanks so much for being here. And we have Hilda Chan who is an advocate for SPIN. And Mark Dillon, head of the city relations commission.
DILLON: Glad to be here.
ST. JOHN: Joni, why did you decide to bring this group of kids together tonight?
HALPERN: Well, in SPIN, we work with kids and families over a very long period of time because we're trying to address the barriers that keep them from getting to self-sufficiency. And we're seeing to see the kind of leadership among kids that is destructive of their hope and their actual chances for a better future. We thought hard about what to do. And we thought that it is apparent that in the public dialogue, there is no consideration for the outcomes for children, especially for low-income children, and it is time now to raise that concern to a level where people policy makers must at least evaluate them before they pass public policies that pardon me children. So we're going to go before the City of San Diego human relations commission, which has been a very full voice of moral authority for fairness of access to all things in the city. And we want to ask them to help us engage the City Council in an evaluation of impact on youth before they pass any policy.
ST. JOHN: Tell us about the kids who are going. What ages are they?
HALPERN: Our youngest one is 6. Youngest speaker is 6. And he has testified before the Senate and the assembly in Sacramento on the cal works cuts. And we insist that children tell us their own stories, that we're not putting stories in their mouths. And we ask them to remember that they're speaking for thousands of kids who have no voice. And the wonderful thing about the children in SPIN, they have stood up and understood that responsibility, and that's what they're there to do tonight.
ST. JOHN: We actually have the letters that some of these children have written. Some of them are not really children anymore. They go up to community college students.
HALPERN: We have one person who is speaking who has been in SPIN a long time and is now a community college student, I think he's 19.
ST. JOHN: Right. So we have some of these letters and you can see them on the website. And one of them that struck me was the effect of having library hours shortened. What does it mean for this kid?
HALPERN: It means that you don't have Internet access for your homework it means you can't communicate with your teacher, it means you are cut off from the avenues of communication with your school and your responsibilities at school, and it means if the computers are working and you do get in the library in the reduced hours, you have a time limit on how much time you can spend doing your homework. And these kids are getting detention and all kinds of penalties at school because they can't compete. They don't have Internet at home.
ST. JOHN: Now, I know that you've done quite a bit of research on how poverty is affecting kids in San Diego? General. Have you found anything that significantly shows a trend at the moment?
CHAN: The trend is that poverty is rising, especially among children. It's risen almost to the point of 1-4 children being in poverty now. And if we were to look at a real, honest, whether people can afford baseball necessities, over 1/3 of San Diego's families are economically insecure.
ST. JOHN: So I guess one of the questions here is why the city's human relations commission, and mark I'd like to bring you in here, what is the mission of this commission, and how does it relate to what we're going to hear tonight?
DILLON: What we're trying to do is be a megaphone and increase access for civic engagement and groups within the city. Although the food stamp program is administered by the county, a lot of the people in San Diego live in the county of San Diego. And SPIN is a really good example of a well-organized, that you feel organization that brought us information about the food stamp program. They had done their homework, they have been on the case for a long time and woke us up to the problems that existed and then allowed us -- and it's not just the human relations commission. There were a large number of people involved in this. Some of the offices asked for the study that revealed some of the problems. And what the county has faced, really, is resource issues, lack of direction and mission in some ways, and the result is the delivery of food stamps has really been subpar. Of what we've seen in the last six months or so has been a real effort by the county to improve its organization, to address problems. Now things are by no means fixed, but it's because of the efforts of SPIN and Joan and other groups bringing us in. We interviewed the staff of Cox and Roberts, we talked to the health and human service advisory board.
ST. JOHN: I guess one of the problems is how you get an ear. You've got all these families with stories to tell, and maybe the human relations commission is a good place to start. What do you specifically want to ask for?
HALPERN: We want to call upon the human relations commission to hear the voices of these kids who are saying we do not have access to city services. Or we will suffering from increased penalties for whatever in the city. We you voted with the metropolitan transit board to cut bus routes and increase fares. It's changing our lives and outcomes.
ST. JOHN: How is that affecting kids?
HALPERN: Just in the mid-city alone, the mid-city newsletter, they talked about almost 400 kids who couldn't get to school because they can't afford bus passes. And we're seeing this in SPIN all the time. And what that does, it starts a process that leads to juvenile justice procedurings and student attendance review board, and all kinds of penalties.
ST. JOHN: Because they're playing, or that's what people assume.
HALPERN: That's what people assume. But the problem is, they just can't get there.
ST. JOHN: One letter, the kid got in trouble with the law because the law is where a police officer has to stop a kid who should be in school, right?
ST. JOHN: Is there a reason the kid wouldn't be in school on time when he knows he's supposed to get there?
HALPERN: I think there are a thousand reasons why a child could be late to school. Our problem with this blanket policy of ticketing kids for loitering is that it lumps into that kids who were actually on their way to school and about to be there. And in my view, that is not loitering. And that's something that carries with it a penalty and kind of, like, a little juvenile rap sheet kind of thing that darkens the prospects for that child in the future. And it's not necessary if we look at the reason yes they're not there.
ST. JOHN: What is the penalty?
HALPERN: Well, they're going to have to appear before someone, they're going to have to answer to the juvenile justice system. And all of that just exacerbates the struggle to keep food on the table and put something over their heads. It's not fair.
ST. JOHN: I know you've been in this business for more than a decade. And you've seen the trend. How would you say you're feeling being in the business advocating for these families for so long?
HALPERN: Two things. I think I've come out of this with two things. One is a terrible fears that our community, not just in San Diego, but across the nation, has lost sight of the children. Anything that you do for low-income children in terms of access to city services will improve the live business of every struggling member of the middle class. But we have forgotten that children are part of our community. The second thing, I have an enormous respect for the families I serve. And that is contrary to the public dialogue. I see them as persons who love their children deeply, who care deeply about their country, who want very much to contribute to their community, and who have been cut off from access.
ST. JOHN: Mark, do you see children as being an underrepresented group here?
DILLON: I think after the meeting tonight, I will feel much more like that than I do now. This is one of the functions that SPIN provides, to eliminate issues and problems that many of us don't look at and see the detail of. So again, we're going to be meeting with Joni and the kids this evening. And I'll speak more authortatively after that. In some way, we can help provide a legitimacy to this group, that's our job. We're an unpaid volunteer commission. We have the services of about half of a city employee as our executive director. So part of our job is to find those groups and issues that really will benefit from what we can do, and is this a good example.
ST. JOHN: It's interesting because I heard that the Latino youth council has recently be submitted questions to the mayoral candidates, and the children will then communicate what they hear back to their parents. So do you think that maybe kids are waking up politically as times get tougher? Anybody?
HALPERN: Well, I think that the use of a voice, a single voice to find its way into the public dialogue is now harder in America for every single person than it was before, unless you are the person who has access behind closed doors. Your job is harder as a person in this democracy. So what organizations like ours do is open a door. And one of the wonderful things that the human relations commission did for us is to say our door is open.
ST. JOHN: Good, well, I want to thank you guys for coming in and giving us a glimpse of your efforts.