Scorching summer heat was no match for the delicious tacos and tasty drinks served up Saturday at Mariachi Plaza in Boyle Heights, where hundreds of people took part in the 4th Annual Taco Festival fundraiser benefitting Jovenes Inc., a non-profit organization that helps homeless youth.
The lines were very long at times at the “summer’s biggest (eastside) bash” as people waited their turn to get their hands on warm—and at some booths recently handmade—tortillas packed with the tastiest meat, chicken, shrimp and vegetables in the form of tacos, quesadillas, tostadas and burritos being prepared by a variety of local restaurants.
Twenty-one-year-old David A. Torres was among the dozens of volunteers gladly answering questions and directing people where to get what they were looking for. Torres appreciates the importance of events like the Taco Festival, explaining to EGP that Jovenes was there for him when he needed it the most.
Read this article in Spanish: Deliciosos Tacos Para Ayudar a Jóvenes Sin Hogar 
The more than two-decade-old Jovenes organization provides services to homeless youth and at-risk families in East Los Angeles and Boyle Heights, including emergency shelter and transitional housing and a variety of other supportive services.
Torres said he became homeless when he was just 12 years old. He said his mother helped him enroll in school but “never really paid attention” to him as she struggled to deal with her own issues.
He says he spent years sleeping on couches and taking showers at friends’ homes, but never stopped going to school. However, it wasn’t until he turned 18, legally an adult, that he decided to share his homeless situation with staff at the school.
“I told my teacher and he told me to talk to a social worker, who said she had a list of shelters” where I might be able to live, Torres said.
Jovenes Inc. was on that list, and according to Torres, he was given a place to live while finishing high school, counseling and help getting a job as a security guard. Later he moved to Progress Place apartments, Jovenes’ housing complex for one time homeless youth, like Torres, who are able to pay rent but might still need some support services.
“I got my apartment, I work in security and I have been taking internships throughout the three years that I have been with Jovenes,” says Torres proudly.
He now wants to share his experience and help others who might be in the same situation he was before Jovenes opened their doors to him.
“I want to bring awareness about homeless youth,” Torres added.
According to Jovenes’ policy report, “The Fringes – Understanding Homeless Transition Age Youth (ages 18-25) in Inner City Los Angeles,” funded by the California Endowment, an estimated 5,000 to 10,000 youth “experience homelessness on any given night” in Los Angeles.
Jovenes Development Director Eric Hubbard told EGP that the nonprofit serves homeless young people between the ages of 18 and 25, the majority are Latino and live in East Los Angeles or Boyle Heights. “We provide their initial shelter, help them get jobs, develop leaderships and services through individual cases,” Hubbard said.
In Boyle Heights and East LA, an estimated 1,000 homeless kids under the age of 18 attend Los Angeles Unified schools, according to Hubbard.
Jovenes funds its programs through grants and donations from numerous foundations, city contracts and fundraisers like Saturday’s Taco Festival, which had the support of Boyle Heights businesses like Yeya’s restaurant owned by Lupe Barajas.
Yeya’s booth had one with the fastest moving lines and offered fried shrimp and potato tacos. “We donated about 750 plates of tacos,” Barajas told EGP, explaining that even though her earnings from the restaurant were minimal, she was proud “to be able to help youth stay off the streets.”
Nelson Ledesma is one of the many young men receiving services from Jovenes. He says the help was like “seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Ledesma was born in the U.S., but his parents moved the family to Mexico when he was very young. Fleeing domestic violence, his mother returned to the U.S. a few years later, her four children in tow. Ledesma was seven at the time.
The family had no place to live when they returned to Los Angeles and was constantly “bouncing from home to home,” Ledesma said. At age 18 he enrolled in Job Corps, but told EGP his unstable home life forced him to quit before completing the two-year training program.
“I lied to my family about school,” Ledesma said. “I just didn’t want to go back home and have the same struggle,” choosing to instead live on the street, sleep in cars and pick up work here and there when he could.
Then he was referred to Jovenes, where he says he received help from day one.
It’s been six months since that first day and Ledesma now has steady work as a waiter, has obtained a driver’s license and is living in Jovenes’ sponsored transitional housing. He says he is saving money to rent his own apartment.
“Jovenes is a blessing, it’s awesome, it shows you how much they care,” he said.
The reasons for youth homelessness are many. Some of the at-risk and homeless youth serviced by Jovenes have transitioned out of foster care, others are undocumented and some are escaping gangs. In some cases, the youth’s family has rejected him or her because they identify as LGBTQ.
If the long lines are any indication, the Taco Festival appears to have been a great success.
Of Colombian heritage but Mexican “at heart,” Laura Gonzalez said she and her friends were really enjoying the Mexican music, arts and culture on display at Mariachi Plaza. She said it was her first time attending the Taco Festival and plans to attend again, but hopes there will be more vendors and shorter lines the next time around.
In addition to tacos, there were also vendors serving up agua fresca (fresh fruit drinks) and a section for beer and tequila lovers.
“Last year we made $25,000 and everything goes to support shelter and individual cases,” Hubbard told EGP, adding they are hoping to raise more money this year.
The organization helps about 120 youth every year through multiple, shelters, housing and jobs.
Twitter @jackieguzman