At the July 18 City Council meeting’s public forum, a group called the Southern New Mexico Youth Advisory Board requested that the city re-open the teen center on Ake Avenue and support their efforts to help the young people of Socorro.
The Southern New Mexico Youth Advisory Board is made up of young people, ages 16 to 25, with lived experience of homelessness.
During the lively discussion, some immediate alternative solutions were offered, programs already provided by the city, such as Finley Gym and the Socorro Public Library.
Additionally, the re-purposing of under-utilized buildings for use as a community center was said to be in the planning stages.
Maya Fern, the spokesperson for the group, began the presentation by introducing the YAB and its mission: “advocating for unhoused young people by educating the community, dismantling stigma and providing insight to youth-serving agencies.”
Fern spoke about the urgent need for local youth who have been displaced and are “wandering around town getting into trouble” since the center’s closure.
“The center provided a safe space for kids, who don’t want to go home, to make new friends, work on school assignments and be themselves.” She also said that the teens appreciated the guidance and care of the staff.
“If the teen center reopens, the Youth Advisory Board would be willing to facilitate field days, cookouts, sports, board game nights and video game tournaments, and most importantly, life skills classes,” said Fern.
With the understanding that funding can be a barrier, Fern pointed out that the southern part of New Mexico is “taking steps to invest in young people” and encourages Socorro to as well.
In order to end and prevent youth homelessness, the youth board has applied for a federal grant from the Youth Homelessness Demonstration Project of HUD to support their efforts. Fern said they feel confident that they will be approved.
Shay Kelley, board chair for Puerto Seguro Safe Harbor, is one of the adult advisors to the YAB. She spoke about the need for services specifically for teens. Puerto Seguro is the local day shelter for homeless adults but, as Kelley said, many homeless teens are unwilling to share the same spaces with adults.
Kelley said, “Forty percent of teens in Socorro County live below the poverty line … (and) Socorro County has the highest rates of child poverty…. so, some of them (the teens) are very poor and have nowhere to go to do things.”
Kelley later reported that Puerto Seguro provides services for some teens through the high school, but it is “grossly inadequate” to meet the needs of teens in crisis.
Referring to the saying that most Americans are two paychecks away from homelessness, Kelley emphasized how volatile the situation can be for a teenager. “All it takes is one sentence (from a guardian): ‘Get out.’ Teens are one sentence away from the street.”
Mayor Bhasker asked which members of the YAB were residents of the city of Socorro. The residency status of the members of the group was a concern for others on the council. Several of the board attend Socorro High School.
Bhasker highly recommended Finley Gym which he said provides many of the opportunities that the group is requesting.
Kelley responded that the group had just learned of the gym’s reopening. (At press time, the city website still shows that it’s closed.) The group is planning to check out the gym for recreation and as a gathering place but said that the life skills classes were the most important focus of the teen center re-opening. “There’s definitely a need and a desire for those types of services in Socorro,” she said.
Bhasker listed some of the things that the city is currently doing for youth. “We hired 120 youths in the summer… spending $150,000 for that… they learn life skills there.” Also, the mayor said that the city “moved everything from the youth center over to Finley Gym.”
At one point, Bhasker called up Socorro Library Director Chelsea Jones. She informed those present that the public library has received funding for life skills classes as well as literacy education and invited Fern to contact her to coordinate efforts.
Bhasker pledged to speak with Shay Lee of Finley Gym to make her aware of these concerns, but also urged the YAB to make the same presentation to the county commissioners to address the needs of teens who do not live in the city limits.
The mayor invited the group to give the council a “cohesive outline of these requests” and later said, “we are more than happy to work with you on specific things” as the city budget affords.
Councilor Peter Romero reported that initial meetings between himself and Councilors Deborah Dean and Michael Olguin, have taken place to look at re-purposing unused buildings in the city.
Dean said, “I’m just trying to create a community center where there’s different rooms for different purposes. One might be designed more for teens, one might be for … music, or a climbing wall.” She continued, “We’ve got to do some demolition work first, but we are thinking about the kids.”
Fern thanked the council for their time and for learning about what the city is has to offer, and said, “As my last request, as these plans grow… I would love it if you could involve the Youth Advisory Board… because nobody knows what young people need better than these young people who live in Socorro.”
Since the start of the pandemic, when it ceased operations as a youth center, the Socorro Teen Center has been a multi-purpose facility, and has been used for COVID vaccinations, elections and the winter Farmers Market.
In a subsequent phone call, Bhakser confirmed that all of the programs that were at the Teen Center are now at Finley Gym. He elaborated to say there will be programing such as a youth dance and other activities, specifically designed for teens.
During that call, Bhasker also confirmed that the teen center building on Ake Avenue will soon house the police substation that is currently 1002 Ake Ave.
At the July 18 meeting, it was mentioned that the substation has several adverse working conditions, including black mold and non-working air conditioning. The substation relies on fans for cooling.
Also, Bhasker said at the meeting during discussion that an insurance claim for the mold problem had been denied.
PUBLIC FORUM PARTICIPATION
At each regular city council meeting, the public forum is an occasion when concerned citizens can speak their minds, though no formal action will be taken at that meeting.
Requests to speak must be submitted in writing by Friday at noon before the meeting. There is a form on the city’s website, www.socorronm.gov/forms, called “Council Agenda Request Form.”