East Palo Alto Mayor Ruben Abrica focused on one unifying theme during his State of the City speech on Monday night: "How do we help the community?"
The question, raised by a group of sixth-graders during his recent visit to the Boys and Girls Clubs of the Peninsula, "really got my attention," Abrica said.
"I want you to remember that phrase too," he told about 75 people attending the event at City Hall. (Other members of the City Council, which is on a monthlong break, were not in attendance.)
"My hope is that families, friends and neighbors will try to help each other out. I think that's what we are all about," Abrica said.
In his speech, which celebrated individual and collective action, cited recent collaborative accomplishments, from a soon-to-open longterm RV parking lot to a litter-removal campaign.
Abrica, the longest-tenured council member and arguably the city's most consistent champion for its collective soul, noted that community activism has always been at the heart of East Palo Alto's achievements, starting with the city's inception.
Abrica was part of a group of residents that fought for incorporation 35 years ago for four main reasons: self-determination -- that residents should govern themselves and determine their future; to have a city-run police department and address violence; to develop economically; and to address housing and prevent displacement of residents.
The city went through many trials in its early decades, including rampant drug activity and a soaring homicide rate, but Abrica pointed again to the collective power of residents to make a change. The city's zero-homicide rate for the past two years is due to the community's willingness to come forward to report crimes and provide information to police.
East Palo Alto was, for decades, a place where the "no-snitch" code was largely the rule, but a change in residents' outlook and the police department's community-policing approach built trust and partnerships.
"(Homicides) caused so much pain and tragedy in our community," Abrica said. "I really feel this (no homicide rate) is a new normal for us, where we have crossed the line."
The community also stepped up to help house homeless individuals and families living in recreational vehicles on the streets. Abrica publicly recognized Pastor Paul Bains and Project WeHOPE for their initiative to temporarily host up to 20 RV dwellers on city-owned land. The program, which is currently being organized, could open in November and will offer services to help get people into housing while having a safe place to stay overnight.
Abrica also lauded Robert Jones, who has led the city's Community Emergency Response Team, which will now have a representative as part of the city's command structure; and George Mendoza, who spent his youth in East Palo Alto and returned from college to develop an award-winning youth soccer club.
He also recognized the Rev. Timoteo Uelese of the Aleluia Samoan Assembly of God Church, who stepped up to organize a campaign to remove litter from local streets.
On the weekend of Oct. 20, East Palo Alto will take that community action further by launching a citywide cleanup campaign to remove trash, a problem that has grown exponentially in the past year, Abrica said.
He acknowledged that creating adequate affordable housing remains an unfulfilled goal.
The city is working to move some housing projects forward. The city has released a request for proposals for an affordable-housing development at the municipally owned 965 Weeks St.
The City Council will also consider funding the rehabilitation and expansion of the Light Tree apartments this fall. Staff is also planning to bring the next draft of its affordable-housing strategy before the council in October.
Abrica said the city also made strides in its quality-of-life goals. Cooley Landing, once a county dump, now provides a beautiful open space area and educational center by the San Francisco Bay. And a long-anticipated pedestrian and bike overpass is under construction over U.S. Highway 101.
"It will serve to unify the west side and the east side of East Palo Alto. People can go to school and shopping, and I hope they won't have to drive. For many years, this was one of the social justice issues in a way," he noted of the lack of access and isolation caused by the freeway.
This year, staff will meet with San Mateo County through Supervisor Warren Slocum, whose district includes East Palo Alto, to enhance services for seniors. The county runs an aging-friendly cities program that Abrica said he hopes will benefit the city's elder population.
"That population has grown and is diverse and has many interests," he said of seniors.
While Abrica sought to address the soul of the community as the city's cornerstone, he also referred residents to the 2018 City Council Strategic Goals and Work Plan, which details many of the city's other priorities, goals and achievements. The document can be found on the city's website, at ci.east-palo-alto.ca.us/AgendaCenter, in the Aug. 8 City Council agenda beginning on page 203.
Abrica delivered his speech in English and Spanish. He said a version would be translated into languages spoken by the Pacific Islander community.
Some other goals the city achieved as outlined in the city report include:
• Awarded $200,000 to Renaissance for creating "small business marketplace" events to assist local businesses.
• Fostered community events, including movie nights and National Night Out.
• Received a $300,000 grant from San Mateo County's Measure A to implement the city's 2017 Bicycle Transportation Plan.
• Created a draft Affordable Housing Overlay, which is expected to return to the council in October or November.
• Issued a request for proposals on the 965 Weeks St. site for affordable housing.
• Approved a Safe Parking Program for RVs on the city-owned former Tanklage site.
• Voted to add a "tech tax" to the November ballot for new developments.
• Communicating with the county's Community Service Area Community Advisory Committee to develop a homeless drop-in center.