Census 2001

City shifts its efforts
East Palo Alto services reach out to communicate with new Latino majority

by Geoff S. Fein

W ith almost 59 percent of East Palo Alto's population being of Hispanic origin, it is no surprise that city and county agencies have seen a rise in their Latino clientele. Agencies serving East Palo Alto have had to adapt to the language and cultural changes in the city's population.

The Women, Infant and Children (WIC) program has seen an increase in use by Latinos in East Palo Alto. The program provides low-income families with supplemental nutritious foods, nutritional education and counseling, and screening and referrals to other health, welfare and social services.

"Families are taking advantage (of WIC)," said Juan Sablan, a community worker for WIC in San Mateo County. "We see a lot of enrollment in the Latino community." WIC is not a federally funded program, but a grant program administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Sablan said the program tries to reach families wherever it can. WIC is offered to pregnant women through the duration of their pregnancy and up to six weeks after. The program is also offered to children up to their fifth birthday.

"We go out to parks, libraries and community centers. We don't see any difficulty in doing outreach," Sablan said. "We try to go where the clients can get information."

Others are referred by relatives, Sablan added.

"Information is passed through word-of-mouth," he said.

One program offered to low-income women is the Mommy Health Van that offers pregnancy testing and prenatal care, Sablan said.

Referrals are also made to Medical and Cal Works (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids), the state's version of the welfare program. However, some Latino families in East Palo Alto are ineligible for the programs. Contrary to what some people believe, it is difficult for undocumented workers to collect welfare, according to Jennie Loft, public information officer for San Mateo County Children and Family Services. "We are restricted by rules and guidelines for giving benefits to undocumented (workers)," she said. The county doesn't hand over cash to just anyone walking in the door, Loft said.

"We ask for some verification of INS (immigration and Naturalization Service) status," Loft said. That information is then cross referenced with the INS system.

However, there are circumstances when undocumented families can receive benefits. If a child has legal status in the U.S., they can receive benefits, Loft said.

Undocumented workers can receive emergency benefits that can only be used in emergency rooms. Emergency benefits also include Child Protective Services.

In East Palo Alto the Community Services Department has seen an increase in Latino enrollment in various city programs, said Meda Okelo, director of community services.

The increase in Latinos in East Palo Alto is a massive demographic change, Okelo added.

Through a collaborative effort with the Ravenswood School District, San Mateo Human Resources and area non profit agencies, the city operates programs to prepare youngsters for school.

Jump Start Kindergarten Readiness is a program offered every summer to prepare kids going into Kindergarten in the fall. The city also has a home visiting program that works with children to identify those kids that may need additional assistance.

Okelo said program officials recognize housing is a big issue for many of the families enrolled. In families that move around a lot, children have a difficult time learning, he said.

"We try to locate permanent housing," Okelo said. "The idea is to create the infrastructure to help children."

About 85 percent of participants are Latino, Okelo said.

"We are trying to get other communities to notice (the program)," he said. "The mission of this effort is not to target specific communities but to target children."

At the city's recreation center, about 70 percent of the kids who use the facility are Latino, Okelo said.

Okelo understands it may be difficult to effectively reach Latinos. That is why he has hired multi-lingual staff. Okelo finds many Latino children are multi-lingual but the real "challenge is communicating with parents."

"The city has had to make changes," he said.

The East Palo Alto Police Department has taught its employees Spanish to more effectively work with the city's changing population. East Palo Police Chief Wes Bowling knows he could use more Latino and Latino police officers. Of the 40 sworn officers on the force only four, or 10 percent, are Latino.

Bowling however has worked hard to make his officers bilingual. They were given a one-week survival Spanish course taught by instructors from Defense Language Institute in Monterey. Bowling hopes to bring them back for more training.

Even armed with Spanish language skills, officers still call in interpreters when dealing with Latino citizens, Bowling said. The police department can also get assistance from the San Mateo County Sheriff. Under the terms of a contract between the Sheriff and East Palo Alto.

The police department has had more than four Latino police officers during Bowling's six-year tenure. The department has lost eight Latino officers in six years to better paying jobs, Bowling added.

There are attempts to recruit Latino or bilingual officers and not just those fluent in Spanish, but also in Hindi and Tongan, Bowling said.

"I had one of each, but they left for better paying jobs," he said.