Safe Havens

I grew up in a low- to moderate-income community in a single-parent-headed household. For a time my mother was working three jobs to sustain us. I can’t imagine how hard it was on her just keeping her energy up for the work, never mind her need to also ensure child care for me. As I got older, public spaces became integral in my upbringing because they provided safe havens where my mother could trust adults would be present and my experience there would be positive. There were three that were in regular rotation.

My favorite place was our public library. Call me a nerd if you like, but there wasn’t a day in my youth where I wouldn’t be happy to just be lost in a book all day. My mother, knowing this, made friends with the local librarians and on many a Saturday shift for my mother I spent the day reading at the library three blocks from her job. It was quiet. It was a bookworm’s heaven.

The Boys and Girls Club went out of its way to ensure that activities were available all day, and I also spent a lot of time at the public park. I played in summer softball leagues there, got to know the gym manager, and hung out at the basketball court and took stats.

I grew up in Los Angeles, Highland Park to be exact, and it looks very different today than it did then. Despite the crime and poverty that surrounded me, including my own lack of resources, I never wanted for a positive outlet where I could spend my time in my neighborhood that was both safe and staffed with caring adults.

Fast forward to the present and as a “community developer” I look at how important it is that these options are available. Though my work focuses on housing first for vulnerable populations, my personal “housing first” definition is housing first, yes, but then services, recreation, education. These are all pillars to building strong communities, and most importantly, strong people.

Jessica Venegas is director of strategic partnerships for Common Ground Community Solutions in New York City.



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