Alicia Heredia danced and sung "No Bullies" at the District's "One City Summer Fun" at the Banneker Recreation Center. To help provide alternatives for unemployed youths, the city developed a new initiative called “One City Summer Fun,” is a new initiative to help provide alternatives for the city’s unemployed youths. (Mark Gail/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Mekayell Lucas expected to return to her Southeast home after her freshman year at Shaw University in North Carolina to spend this summer like the last: working with elementary school children through the District’s summer jobs program.

But when the 19-year-old tried to sign up in March, the program was already full. For more than two months, she has sought summer work — including jobs at CVS and Target — because she said she needs the income.

“I won’t be able to buy clothes and shoes that I need, or help my mom with bills,” Lucas said. “I think that’s not fair.”

Lucas is one of about 8,000 young D.C. residents now searching for something to do this summer after a $322 million budget shortfall led officials to dramatically scale back the city’s troubled Summer Youth Employment Program.

The program, which pays 14- to 21-year-olds to work in government agencies and local businesses, has for the first time capped the number of participants. This summer, it will employ 12,000 people, down from more than 20,000 in each of the previous two years, when the program had no cap.

And on top of the summer jobs cuts, the city has 5,600 fewer summer-school slots and 1,500 fewer spaces in programs through the D.C. Children and Youth Investment Trust, a public-private organization that offers grants to nonprofits serving youths.

With fewer opportunities for young people to earn money this summer, city advocates are working to fill the gaps and trying to understand why the District hasn’t done more to promote alternatives for job-seekers left empty-handed.

“Many of us are scrambling to see what we can come up with for kids who are not going to have this [employment] opportunity,” said Lori Kaplan, director of the Latin American Youth Center. “It’s going to be tough.”

‘A job ought to be a job’

The cuts are the latest in a string of setbacks for a popular D.C. summer rite of passage — including million-dollar overruns — and raise concerns over keeping city youngsters busy this season.

Since the program began in 1979, under then-Mayor Marion Barry, it has grown exponentially in popularity and cost; participants can now earn up to $1,000 for part-time work, and many parents have come to rely on it as a way to keep kids doing something productive.

In 2008, after then-Mayor Adrian M. Fenty pushed to give a job to any young person who wanted one, more than 21,000 participants enrolled, overwhelming the government’s ability to keep track of them. Youths were repeatedly sent to the wrong workplace, or weren’t paid, or were paid for doing little, if anything. More than 200 participants didn’t meet the city residency requirement, and the program ran $30 million over budget.

Last year, 20,000 people enrolled at a cost of more than $20 million. Youth-advocacy organizations complained that the program was failing to teach good skills and habits because some of the jobs entailed collecting a paycheck for sitting silently in a classroom.

This year, Mayor Vincent C. Gray’s administration scaled back the program to rein in its cost. Only 12,000 participants were accepted this summer, and for the first time employers were allowed to interview and screen applicants. The city has also been running mandatory orientation sessions in the past few weeks, teaching participants to be on time and to behave professionally. Participants have been told that they will be fired if they break the program’s rules.

“We’re doing radical things, like having kids come every day, show up on time, get along with people, and having something really to do when [they] get there,” Gray said. “A job ought to be a job. It shouldn’t be a public safety mechanism where we pay kids so they stay out of trouble.”

The mayor said more than 3,000 people are on a waiting list and will be placed in jobs if the city can raise private funding; on Wednesday, he accepted a $7,000 check from Asbury United Methodist Church to help add more participants to the program. The city has also created several unpaid summer alternatives.

“It’s a budget issue, and everyone knows the budget challenges this city has faced,” Gray said.

Meanwhile, the same organizations that supported the program cap are pressuring the mayor’s office to come up with something for the youths who were left out.

“The mayor and the city are making a noble attempt at filling in some holes, but it’s definitely very last minute, and I’m not sure about the quality of the opportunities they’re coming up with,” said Sean Segal, director of operations at the Urban Alliance Foundation, which runs youth training and mentoring programs (all of which are full). “Personally, I’m not sure that having the pools open is involved enough of an activity to keep youths occupied during the summer.”

Too little, too late?

Zenniah Davis, 15, didn’t get into the program this year. Last year, she was a paid intern at Higher Achievement, an academic support program, and used her earnings to buy school supplies. She rides a bus, a train and a school bus every day from her home in Ward 7 to Sandy Spring Friends School in Chevy Chase.

She said that she was upset when she learned she wouldn’t be able to collect a paycheck this year. But she’s planning to volunteer at Higher Achievement.

“I’m kind of disappointed with D.C. [officials] and with their choices,” she said. “I’m volunteering, so at least I’m getting something out of it.”

Miki Bridges, 44, works for the D.C. Office of Tax and Revenue, so she’s aware of the city’s financial woes. But she was still surprised when her 18-year-old daughter, Kisa, didn’t get into the program this year. Neither did her 16-year-old son, Kevon, who participated last summer.

“I really didn’t realize until it hit my family,” she said. “Then I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is serious.’ ”

Bridges said Kevon, who attends Gonzaga College High School, would use the money for rowing, snowboarding and community service trips. She wants Kisa to have a job before she goes off to Howard University; they can’t afford her on-campus housing this year. Kisa has applied for jobs at McDonald’s and Safeway, as well as for internships with the federal government, but she hasn’t found anything yet.

To help provide alternatives for unemployed youths, the city developed a new initiative called “One City Summer Fun,” a first-ever grouping of hundreds of events and activities under one banner. Many of the options rely on city services, such as going to public parks, pools or libraries. But others are new, such as opening the D.C. Armory for roller skating. Additionally, Gray said hundreds of city employees have volunteered to run community events.

“We’re having multiple activities and making sure people know what these activities are,” he said.

But there were few takers at two meetings with the mayor to kick off the summer-alternatives initiative. One, at Banneker Recreation Center on June 10, drew more officials and organizers than youngsters, and a Tuesday session billed as a public conversation with the mayor was attended by six people.

Some city officials, community groups and young people said that while they welcomed the gesture, it was too little, too late.

“While we appreciate the spirit with which the mayor brought together the top leaders in his administration — it was a great event — but on paper it still looks like there will be 10,000 kids without something to do this summer,” Ram Uppuluri, the executive director of the D.C. Alliance of Youth Advocates, a coalition of youth services organizations, said after the June 10 event.

Barry, who now represents Ward 8, said he saw a fight among teens in his neighborhood over who got a summer job and who didn’t.

His suggestion to young people looking for something to do this summer: “Call the mayor.”