by Latanya West

 

When District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis’ CARE Community Center had its grand opening July 11th, the turnout from community organizations, law enforcement, and local officials was so overwhelming, they ran out of food. The excitement in the room was a testament to a willingness between the community and law enforcement to jointly address Southeast San Diego’s crime prevention and public safety needs.

 

The new center, which stands for Community, Action, Resource, and Engagement (CARE), is in its first phase of a strategic mission: building strong community partnerships that address the root causes of crime and help residents heal from within.

 

Located at 12 N. Euclid Ave, on the border of Southeast and National City, the center is a state-of the–art community meeting space and support services hub. For grassroots organizations, it’s a place for community workshops, trainings, and events. For Southeast’s youth and adults, including veterans and the formerly incarcerated, it’s a place to access computers for a job search, homework assistance, and tutoring.

 

Soon, Southeast residents and their families will receive coordinated assessments and referrals to existing service providers  – from within the community. Encouraged to take care of their own, community based mental health, education, employment, and other social services referrals will help improve and uplift lives.

 

The center is also host to the D.A.’s current programs: the Youth Advisory Board, Community Youth Court, and the Veterans Empowerment Program.

 

“It’s where law enforcement and individuals come together,” says JJ Anderson, the DA’s Director of Community Programs. “We want to address people’s needs before they get to prison or probation.”

 

This is something new in Southeast. “It’s a restorative approach,” says Anderson. Since passage of AB 109, the state assembly bill that shortened criminal sentences and brought thousands of low level offenders back into their communities, San Diego law enforcement has routinely expanded its role in helping the formerly incarcerated successfully transition home.

 

Through the CARE Center, law enforcement actively seeks to build bridges of collaboration. Their aim is to engage the entire community to deliver high quality resources and services that are uniquely responsive to Southeast’s high-risk justice-involved individuals – and their families.

 

“Things get missed a lot when you just look at a police report,” says Grace Liu, the D.A.’s Assistant Director of Community Programs. ”We’re looking at the causes of crime.” The CARE team is hard at work establishing an effective and efficient referral process.

 

The CARE Center is a welcoming space. A cheery multicolored flower mural adorns the wall behind the reception desk as you enter. Tables, chairs and study kiosks in the main reception area invite you to sit and gather round. A kid’s corner offers toys, books and little people furniture. Constructed by Thomas Weberman, with interior design help from the D.A.’s own Michelle Bush, Chief Administrative Officer, the center reflects the respect and care the community deserves.

 

Groups and individuals can fill out an application to reserve a meeting room or conference room now at the CARE Center website, www.sdcarecenter.org. Conference rooms offer white boards and equipment for professional multimedia presentations.

 

In the months leading up to the center’s July grand opening, Anderson and Liu did their homework. “This is not a guessing game for us,” says Anderson. They modeled their approach after NeON, (Neighborhood Opportunity Network), a restorative justice program in New York City. The team toured NeON sites and Oakland Unite, a northern California violence prevention and intervention program. They carefully studied, found what worked, and intentionally created CARE to meet the Southeast’s unique needs.

 

Community input has been a big part of CARE’s development. They went directly to them for answers. Anderson says, “If you want a successful program, let the experts tell you what they need.”

 

The need included opportunities for the community to speak. In November 2015, the D.A.’s office began a series of monthly Community Stakeholders Meetings. Southeast residents, service providers, and local businesses continue to meet monthly to identify community needs and service gaps, develop solutions, and build partnerships. The goal is to link existing resources that have been proven to work. A pair of university researchers round out the Stakeholders team, helping the group to define, measure, and qualify best practices.

 

Building trust between law enforcement and the community is a challenge, with no easy answers. One stakeholder, Reggie Washington, founder of Project A.W.A.R.E., started his grassroots organization fifteen years ago, while he was incarcerated. “It’s really major for us to learn how we’re going to work together,” he says. Washington appreciates the opportunity to give real input to the CARE team – and says he now understands how difficult it is to successfully launch a program like CARE into the community.  “Some people say, ‘Just make it happen.’ You can’t just ‘make it happen.’ It takes a lot of hard work.”

 

That hard work includes helping grassroots organizations like Washington’s build the capacity to passionately serve in their community. In February, the D.A. held a pre-proposal conference to educate the community on the exact process and mandatory requirements needed to qualify as a CARE service provider. A month later, the D.A.’s Crime Prevention and Recidivism Reduction Services Procurement Workshop provided application assistance to Project A.W.A.R.E. and other community-based sites. Each organization received a 15-minute, one-on-one session to help prepare required paperwork and documentation.

 

Reducing crime and recidivism, and building a safe and vibrant Southeast community takes a village. The D.A.’s CARE Community Center is “for the community, in the community,” as Anderson says. “We don’t care who you are. We want you to get the help you need.”

 

For more information, contact the CARE Community Center; 12 North Euclid Avenue, National City, CA 91950, (619) 356-4489, info@sdcarecenter.org.

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