Crystal Anthony, 17, of Long Beach shares her life story and experience as a youth leader on February 22. Photos by Sylvana Uribe.

With an absent father in and out of prison, 17-year-old Long Beach native Crystal Anthony and her younger siblings were raised by their mother.

The Lakewood High School senior who grew up in the city’s northside said she went to three different elementary schools and lived in at least five different places.

“At one point in time my mom and I were homeless and had to sleep on our grandma’s couch,” an emotional Anthony recounted to dozens of students gathered at Poly High School during a late February news conference. “All of this made me sad and depressed and I struggled with suicidal thoughts.”

With no money to join after school programs, Anthony said she had no one to connect to or receive support from—instead staying home and doing homework or playing with her siblings.

“But I wanted more for myself,” Anthony said. “I wanted to feel connected, I wanted to grow. I knew I had the potential.”

During her freshman year Anthony became a youth leader for the Children’s Defense Fund and Success in Challenges and said she soon found her voice. At those organizations she learned the stories of her fellow youth and concepts such as the “school-to-prison pipeline” notion  and its affect on youth like herself.

Programs like these that especially help the community’s underserved youth are what local organizers are calling on the city to invest more in.

Anthony was one of a handful of teens who last month shared their stories about growing up in low-income neighborhoods and finding programs aimed at nurturing youth during a news conference hosted by Khmer Girls in Action (KGA) and Building Healthy Communities (BHCLB).

At the event, which coincided with KGA’s fifth annual Wellness Week at Poly High, KGA and BHCLB revealed the results of a youth-led survey showing widespread support for youth services and resources in the city budget, which officials are projecting will see a $15 million shortfall for the 2019 fiscal year.

Balancing Act By Financial Management Zeroes Out Projected Deficit, For Now

The release of the Invest in Youth survey results culminated the groups’ first-ever campaign during which youth leaders knocked on doors, conducted after-school phone banking and event tabling to complete a total of 750 surveys and hear what community members identified as top budget priorities. The surveys were taken primarily in the city’s west, central and north areas because of the high concentration of poverty and health disparities, organizers said.

The respondents identified as 61 percent renters and with household incomes under $45,000 a year. Respondents also identified as 58 percent women, 30 percent Cambodian, 29 percent Latino, 12 percent African American and 8 percent white. Seventy-three percent were over age 18 and registered voters.

The campaign came out of youth leaders learning about the city’s budget, said KGA Executive Director Lian Cheun. With the support of Advancement Project, they were also able to analyze how the city has prioritized its spending, she added.

“What is evident from the city’s budget is that Long Beach has historically underinvested in the health and wellbeing of our young residents,” Cheun said at the news conference. “So much so that the money spent on incarcerating young people far outstrips the money spent on positive youth development.”

According to the results, 80 percent of respondents believe the city should prioritize youth development with another 78 percent putting priority both on mental health as well as parks and after school programs and 69 percent prioritized libraries. Those believing the city should prioritize police came in last at 18 percent.

A data analysis by the Advancement Project shows that the Long Beach Police Department receives over $200 million of the city’s budget while youth development programs receive about $25 million.

“We understand that the city is facing an upcoming budget deficit,” Cheun said. “Oftentimes our health and human services, our programming in parks, libraries and prevention programs are on the chopping blocks when cities are facing deficits. These are some of the essential programs for healthy youth development in our city. Today we are actually pushing back on that notion that these programs need to be on the chopping block. Now is not the time to make any cuts to positive programming for youth in Long Beach.”

Cheun offered an alternative—to create a city fund earmarked for children and youth programs that would ultimately grow overtime.

“We call on our city to show Long Beach youth some love and commitment,” Cheun said.

Stephanie Rivera is the community engagement editor. Reach her at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephRivera88.