A complaint by a South Omaha community activist has prompted the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to look into a youth summer jobs program promoted by the City of Omaha.
The Step-Up program, which was started in 2008 by community groups in north Omaha, has provided training and summer work for more than 2,000 teens and young adults.
Last year, with the help of federal funds provided to the city, the effort added more businesses and expanded to other areas, including South Omaha. City officials pointed to the program as a key to a drop in gun crimes during the summer months.
But in a complaint filed this month with the HUD office in Kansas City, Ben Salazar argues that Step-Up has remained too focused on providing help to young job seekers from north Omaha and has actively excluded other applicants.
Last year, 385 of the program's 436 accepted participants were black and seven were Hispanic, according to preliminary data that Salazar received from the city. Salazar said he believes that gap indicates an improper use of public money.
Organizers say there were 598 applicants from north Omaha, with 319 of them accepted. South Omaha had 83 applicants, with 41 accepted to the program.
“We're supposed to be spending federal dollars in a nondiscriminatory manner, with some sort of equality and fairness,” said Salazar, publisher of Nuestro Mundo newspaper.
Salazar's complaint alleges that the city violated a section of the Housing and Community Development Act of 1974. The section says the government can't discriminate based on race or national origin when it distributes funds for HUD programs. That includes the Community Development Block Grant program, through which Omaha received the $300,000 it used for Step-Up.
Betty Bottiger, the regional director for HUD's Office of Fair Housing and Equal Opportunity, confirmed that an investigator has been assigned to the complaint. She said she couldn't comment further while the complaint was under investigation.
The city and the president of the Empowerment Network, a north Omaha group that helped launch the program, said the claims are unfounded.
Willie Barney of the Empowerment Network said he hadn't seen the complaint but was aware of Salazar's concerns. He said organizers worked hard to bring the program to South Omaha last year, enlisting the help of officials at South High School, providing paperwork in Spanish and reaching out to businesses and community groups in the area.
He said the low level of participation was unexpected.
“We did not get the response we thought we would,” he said. “It just didn't happen at that level.”
Barney pointed out that participants have a higher chance of being accepted if they live in places the federal government and the city consider “neighborhood revitalization areas.” The section of north Omaha that falls into that category is much larger than the area in South Omaha.
Still, Barney said, organizers have increased their efforts to attract young people in South Omaha this year. Already, he said, more than 200 families in that area have filled out applications. The program is still accepting applicants.
Aida Amoura, a spokeswoman for Mayor Jim Suttle, said the program is growing and evolving. She said she's concerned that the complaint could overshadow Step-Up's success in getting young people employed and keeping them out of trouble. The city says the number of gun crimes committed by young people was down by 36 percent across the city last summer, and by 51 percent in north Omaha.
“The allegations we're favoring somebody over another — it's sure not our intent,” Amoura said. “The mayor has a strong commitment to South Omaha, to students and young people in every part of the city.”
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