Beneath the elevated light-rail tracks that run across busy Florin Road, Alicia Villasenor cleans the gang-related graffiti that is highly visible to motorists, pedestrians and Luther Burbank High School students.
She’s among eight teens hired by the City of Sacramento for its yearlong graffiti abatement program. Entering its 25th year, the program sends students ages 14-18 each weekend to various posts throughout town.
Accompanied by two crew members and a supervisor, the students help remove graffiti from freeway overpasses, and from the walls of private and public property, including utility poles, mailboxes, trash receptacles and other street furniture. The students also spruce up the landscaping at city parks.
“When we are out in the neighborhoods, people are always saying ‘Thank you,’ ” said Villasenor, 18, a graduate of Inderkum High School in Natomas. “It feels nice to be appreciated.”
The students typically paint over or use alcohol to remove gangs’ signs and profanity. Such graffiti can have a negative impact on those who live, work and own businesses nearby, according to Noel Eusebio, a Sacramento senior enforcement code officer and the supervisor of the graffiti abatement program.
“It’s a quality-of-life issue,” he said. “You don’t start to maintain things, it will attract criminals or prostitutes; you leave the graffiti up, that neighborhood business wouldn’t attract the clients that it wants. I would hate to see what the city would look like if we didn’t have this program.”
Tamara Chapman, 14, a sophomore at John F. Kennedy High School in Sacramento, joined the program seven months ago because it allowed her to beautify the neighborhood where she lives.
“Instead of having stuff sit there, we have someone to clean things up. Kids don’t have to see junk on the street,” Chapman said.
The students work weekends, typically averaging 20-30 hours per month. They are paid $8 per hour. But participating does more than put extra cash in their pockets – they gain a sense of community pride, learn valuable training and learn how to communicate effectively, according to Eusebio.
“Some of the kids want to work at Burger King or In-N-Out, so this is a good place to gain some real work experience,” he said. “They get to learn the basics of interacting with other kids, adults and other employees. Most importantly, they get to represent themselves in a good manner. We move them through the ranks by giving them a leg up by working with us.”
The city provides training and the supplies such as brushes, spray paint , window scrapers, and alcohol to remove the graffiti from the surface.
On a typical weekend the abatement team can travel to 40 sites throughout Sacramento. Similar anti-graffiti programs exist in East Los Angeles and Berkeley.
Sacramento spends more than $500,000 annually on graffiti removal, Eusebio said, and with more than 3,000 complaint calls, the city does its best with the minimal resources that they have. Hiring students, Eusebio says, is cost-effective for the city.
Recently, the eight-member crew removed stickers from stop signs and traffic boxes near the intersection of 59th Street and Broadway and traveled to Woodbine Park in South Sacramento after the city received a citizen complaint saying the park was unkempt.
Rosa Gutierrez, a South Sacramento resident, welcomes the students’ efforts .
“What they’re doing is a really nice gesture,” said Gutierrez, who lives near Woodbine Park.