Trouble On The Border

March 6, 2012       Frank Trejo      

When it comes to challenges, Project Vida, a multi-program social service agency in El Paso, Texas faces the usual suspects – federal, state and city budget cuts stemming from a nationwide economic downturn.

But Bill Schlesinger, Project Vida co-director, adds almost casually that his organization, like many in El Paso, must overcome additional obstacles: “First of all, we have a number of staff members who have families on both sides of the border. They’ve had deaths and kidnappings and lots of fear. It creates a lot of concern for all of us.”

While statistically El Paso remains one of the safest cities in the United States, geographically it is located next to what some refer to as one of the most dangerous cities in the world — Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Gang and drug cartel violence has run rampant in the Mexican border town since 2008. With a population of 1.3 million, in 2010 Juarez recorded more than 3,000 murders. During the same year El Paso, with a population of about 800,000, had five homicides.

So while the kidnappings and murders have had little direct impact on the crime rate in El Paso, the fear and concern have not stopped at the border and in some ways are adding to the obstacles nonprofits have to overcome. El Paso has seen an influx of people trying to flee the Juarez violence. The exact number of people from Juarez now in El Paso is uncertain, but estimates range from 10,000 to 50,000.

Some have crossed illegally, others are business people who have relocated to the U.S. side, and some have been U.S. citizens who previously had lived in Juarez because of family and lower costs but now find it too dangerous.

“We have a number of new clients and that has affected some of our services, particularly our healthcare and our micro-enterprise efforts,” Schlesinger said.

In addition to those programs, Project Vida also provides direct education and housing services to as many as 14,000 persons each year.

Michael Yeary, executive director of the El Paso Child Guidance Center, which provides mental health counseling for children and adults, said the stress of the constant violence in Juarez has resulted in increased numbers of people seeking mental health services.

“We have a lot of individuals who travel back and forth across the border and who have family in Juarez,” Yeary said. “We’re absolutely seeing an impact in that regard.”

Schlesinger and others emphasized that most of their focus is on trying to overcome the effects of the U.S. economic downturn, which in some ways has affected El Paso more than other areas, and in other ways not as much.

Project Vida has seen a reduction of about 70 percent in its family planning services and it’s after school program has also been severely cut.

But Project Vida has managed to increase its revenues and support. In 2007, it raised about $1.2 million. That increased to $1.4 million in 2009 and $1.7 million in 2010. The organization’s health center, which is a different entity, went from $2.1 million in revenue and other support in 2008 to $3.2 million in 2009, and almost $4.8 million in revenue and other support in 2010.

El Paso, like many border areas, historically has had lower income levels than the rest of the country. But recent developments, including the military Base Realignment and Closure Act of 2005 and the influx of Mexican nationals since 2008 have helped to improve conditions. The Base Realignment Act in­creased the number of soldiers at Fort Bliss in El Paso from fewer than 10,000 to a projected 34,000 in 2012.

For some, however, the influx of people from the south and the increased number of soldiers and their families because of the expansion of Fort Bliss has created new challenges. “The indirect result is that there is no affordable housing; available rental properties are quickly snatched up,” said John Martin, director of The Salvation Army in El Paso. “As a result, we are seeing an increase of people at our emergency shelter.”

Rick Soto, administrative executive at the El Paso Apartment Association, noted that apartment occupancy in the city exceeds 90 percent. And he added that while there was some opportunity to plan for the expansion of Fort Bliss, the influx of people from Mexico was not anticipated.

Martin said that as the public dollars have dwindled, his organization is turning more toward private donors and in-kind contributions. And, The Salvation Army is finding new ways to raise funds. It currently is planning a benefit concert with several other social service organizations.

Jason Brewer, vice president of marketing and community building at the United Way of El Paso County, said his organization “took a big hit” in 2008 when the economic decline began. The drop coincided with the start of some of the most extreme violence in Juarez. Since then, United Way fundraising campaigns in El Paso have gone from being flat to a slight increase last year. In 2007, El Paso’s United Way campaign raised $3.3 million. In 2008, the amount dropped to about $2.8 million and in 2009 it was slightly less than $2.7 million. Last year (2010) the campaign raised a little more than $2.7 million.

“What these challenges have done is changed the face of social services in our community and our city,” Brewer said. “It really made us re-evaluate our approach to community building.” United Way in El Paso, he said, has gone from being merely a fundraising entity to being an active participant in bringing different communities together to find ways to help each other, in the face of dwindling financial resources.

“We’re finding ways to help people advocate for their communities and to volunteer for many of these organizations,” Brewer said.

He gave one El Paso neighborhood as an example. A Justice of the Peace noted that he had close to 1,000 young people through his truancy court. When he tried to place some of these youths with nonprofits to perform community service, he found that only five groups were actively seeking such volunteers.

As a result of community meetings and discussions, there is now a list of 60 organizations that accept and welcome those needing to perform community service work.

“We’re only at the ground floor with these efforts to get people in the community together and work in ways that don’t necessarily require more money, but we think we’re on the right road,” Brewer said. “Everybody has to work not just harder, but smarter.”

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Frank Trejo is a Dallas, Texas-based freelance writer.