South Omaha community activist Ben Salazar is again alleging discrimination over a jobs program for young people.
In a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, Salazar said the City of Omaha and Step-Up Omaha jobs program “have continued to discriminate against Hispanic/Latino youth.”
Salazar said Monday that HUD accepted his complaint and assigned an investigator, with whom he expects to speak later this week. A HUD spokeswoman declined to comment.
Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert said Salazar’s claims are without merit. She said the program has been “very successful,” with more than 600 young people from across the city participating this summer.
But Salazar said early figures show that 66 Latino youths are participating, a number that would amount to just over 10 percent of total enrollment.
Salazar said that’s not right for a program that gets city and federal money.
“If the tables were reversed, and the Latino community was getting $1 million of government money for predominately Hispanic youth at the expense of African-American youth, the African-American community would be up in arms,” he said. “I would support them if the tables were turned.”
The program, which started in North Omaha and has since expanded, is funded with about $700,000 from the city annually and about $300,000 in HUD community development block grant funds.
Willie Barney, founder and president of the Empowerment Network, said the program’s total budget is more than $2 million. His organization raises matching funds from other sources including foundations and businesses.
Salazar filed a similar complaint in 2013. HUD investigated and recommended corrective actions, including that the Empowerment Network organization not include the words “African-American” in its name when dealing with Step-Up.
HUD also recommended more outreach to South Omaha faith, community and civic leaders to help boost participation by Latino youths.
Barney said HUD found no discrimination. Still, he said, the Empowerment Network and its partners followed HUD’s recommendations and more, adding another registration opportunity in South Omaha and personally calling Hispanic/Latino applicants.
Salazar said the numbers reveal that corrective actions haven’t been taken.
“They had three full years to take corrective action, and they have failed,” he said. “Oversight by the city has failed.”
In a letter to HUD last month, Stothert said the city has taken action, including suggestions from HUD. She said that 243 Hispanic youths applied for Step-Up as of April but that less than half registered.
“That is frustrating,” she wrote. “We don’t know the reason for the lack of follow-through.”
Stothert said she has recommended an advisory board for Step-Up that would include representatives from all parts of the city to help make improvements to how kids are recruited. Barney said work to establish the board is underway.
Salazar called an advisory board “a very weak offer.”