Homeboy Industries, the largest organization with living evidence of effective gang intervention in America, was started by Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit Priest who wanted to begin his career in the poorest neighborhood in Los Angeles. The organization has since moved from Delores Mission in Boyle Heights to downtown Los Angeles, near Chinatown.
Homeboy Industries has become a safe, rehabilitative community where former members of Los Angeles Gangs and recently released incarcerated men, women and teens from Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Camps find acceptance and make effective life changes. It is an exemplary national model for reducing recidivism and producing healthier, productive lives. The changes which occur create positive ripple effects of compassion which expand into streams of new life for many former members of Los Angeles gangs and those released from jail, prison and Los Angeles County Juvenile Probation Camps. The change can be seen in the depth of their eyes, in the fervor and passion of their speech, and in their renewed purposes and actions, which I observed most recently when I attended a book signing of Tattoos on the Heart, written by Father Greg Boyle.
Do all members of Los Angeles gangs make it at Homeboy Industries? No. But many who have come through the doors of Homeboy Industries earnestly return to try again, and are accepted as they show a willingness to change. Former members of Los Angeles gangs find jobs, not jails at Homeboy Industries. ”Jobs not Jails” is the slogan proudly displayed on Homeboy t-shirts, and the organization’s mission statement is “Nothing stops a bullet like a job.”
Homeboy Industries’ services, include tattoo removal, education, counseling, legal services and recovery groups. They offer solar panel installation and training certification. There is a Homeboy Farmers’ Market, a Homeboy Grocery, Silk Screening and Embroidery, a gift shop, a Homeboy Bakery and The Homegirl Cafe and Catering is where girls “serve food and not time.” I have enjoyed a delicious lunch there a few times. Now even Homeboy Chips and Salsa can be purchased at Ralph’s grocery stores.
HOW I FIRST LEARNED ABOUT HOMEBOY INDUSTRIES
As a pre-graduate school practicum in the ‘90s for a school psychology specialization, I was assigned to read Father Greg and the Homeboys, by Celeste Fremon, while volunteering to work with young members of Los Angeles gangs, wannabes and incarcerated boys at one of the Los Angeles County Probation Camps then called Camp Karl Holton. Educational services were provided at the probation camp by Los Angeles County Office of Education. The chance to volunteer and work one on one with these incarcerated boys was an honor and a privilege, and as a single mom of two elementary school daughters while also attending college and living in one room, I served without pay. Once a week, I met with the head of my school psychology department, Dr. Joe Morris, and shared my notes from readings of Father Greg and the Homeboys about various Los Angeles gangs and the stories of their lives, and we discussed insights or experiences I’d gained as I listened to the stories of the incarcerated boys while walking the track with them or when taking a break from helping them struggle through reading or math work.
Each boy freely shared multiply complex stories, struggles, and came from varied social-cultural and economic backgrounds, but most of them lived well below the poverty level. Some made dishonorable, impulsive or unduly influenced choices perhaps for survival, escape, sensation seeking, or due to unmet needs, impoverished environments, poor role models and other reasons. They all craved a sense of belonging. Many suffered from addictions and had family members or parents still living in “the system” or had lost their natural parents.
My focus, however, was to help the incarcerated boys find strategies to deal with their learning and social-emotional problems, which required a lot of attentive listening, strategies and encouragement. I saw their value and mirrored affirmative respect for progress as we discussed better ways of coping and making choices. I was happy to just be one member of a supportive village of people who helped these boys overcome obstacles to learning and life.
Flash forward, after interning at higher socioeconomic Malibu Schools as well as with less English proficient children of poor migrant workers near the strawberry fields in Oxnard, California, my heart never forgot the stories from Father Greg and the Homeboys, and the rapport I’d build with the boys at Camp Karl Holton, who were already or on their way to becoming “caught up” in the lifestyle of Los Angeles gangs. There was a deep stirring and sense of purpose inside that compelled me to work with these kids.
So, after graduating with a master’s degree and credential in School Psychology, my heart’s desire was to work for Los Angeles County Office of Education, where I could help the “wanna bes” or already entrenched Los Angeles gang members to help them find more self value, deal with learning problems, and to ensure that their disabilities were appropriately supported with special education services. Los Angeles County Office of Education, however, only had openings in the Division of Special Education, where I worked for two years with children who were severely emotionally disturbed, intellectually disabled and autistic. Then I transferred to the Division of Juvenile Court Schools, (now Division of Student Programs), and ended up at Challenger Memorial Youth Center for about 10 years as a school psychologist.
Challenger, for many years, had the best special education program in the juvenile system and the largest caseloads compared to peers across the county, so I learned to work with efficiency, while still covering all the bases. Major political changes began to occur starting in 2006. By 2008, darker clouds rolled in, which darkened further in the summer of 2009. Suddenly pot smoke wafted through classrooms, and kids were found with water bottles filled with vodka. Dangerous blood shed, drug use by minors and ongoing political stench created what appeared to be a perfect storm followed by numerous bad press releases. This wasn’t the Challenger I’d known for 10 years.
Out of the blue, authorities changed the regimented head call procedure and allowed the boys to go to the bathroom “at will,” creating mischief all day long as students disrupted learning constantly to go meet and pass drugs. I observed this in sharp contradistinction to my prior years of experience at Challenger Memorial Youth Center in Lancaster, California.
A student came to me pleading for help for a methamphetamine addiction because it was “available like candy” at his camp and he had “traded meals for it.” He reported that numerous drugs were available in the dorm and he could not get away from them.
Unable fight a war on drugs, the overall outrageous defiance, bloodshed, harm to staff and the sudden barrage of negative newspaper articles, I conducted a needs assessment to see what kids were interested in getting help. The response was high, and so I started an after school group, inviting volunteer speakers from the community. The sudden barrage of problems at Challenger Memorial Youth Center prompted me to begin a Relapse Prevention Program and to thereafter seek assistance from community non-profit organizations.
I had read Celeste Fremon’s next book entitled G-Dog and the Homeboys, the sequel to her first book, Father Greg and the Homeboys, and enjoyed the epilogue at the end which gave a 15 year longitudinal follow-up about some of the boys she had followed since her original book, showing what worked for gang intervention and how the stories of these lives evolved, with more then 50% success rates.
After working at Challenger so many years the sudden onset of violence and drug abuse made everything weirdly out of control. With so many out of control at Challenger, I visited Homeboy Industries, and met a young man who was running a counseling meeting and just happened to be a Challenger “alumni.” His face lit up as I smiled and asked him if he would come out to one of the six Los Angeles juvenile probation camps at Challenger to talk with some of the incarcerated boys. Having no car, the Homeboy agreed to visit by train a few weeks later, wearing his Homeboy hat and jacket. I happily picked him up at the train station and once at Challenger, the kids listened on the edge of their seats. They clearly respected and enjoyed the Homeboy’s visit, which was free, costing tax payers nothing, and he was overjoyed for the chance to share his story to Challenger students, especially since he was an alumni and even remembered some of his teachers who were still there.
On future visits, two Homeboy speakers would arrive by train so they wouldn’t have to travel alone, again wearing their Homeboy Industries T-Shirts. It always put a smile on my face to see them get off the train. These efforts were curtailed, however, by Los Angeles County Department of Juvenile Probation after about a year of successful speaking engagements at Challenger classrooms, which were designed to help the incarcerated boys. One reason given was that “evidence based programs with power point presentations” were needed, to which I responded, “These speakers are living evidence.”
I will always remember the faces of the boys as they listened to the stories told by the Homeboy Industies volunteers and other visitors who came to share how they overcame their proclivities which always led to incarceration. I believe that the seeds of wisdom planted by the guest speakers will remain, although, sadly, one of the Challenger boys in attendance at those meetings was found shot dead in a field shortly after he was release from the facility. That was a sad, but stark reality that often occurs with these kids. I’ll never forget his wide-eyed attentiveness and respect that he showed for the speakers from Homeboy Industries. Reports indicate that 75% of youth gang homicides in the state of California occur in Los Angeles County.
Homeboy Industries, the Homegirl Cafe, Homeboy Bakery, the Silk Screening shop and other programs at Homeboy Industries should not only be supported by the Los Angeles County Department of Probation and City of Los Angeles, but by citizens across the country. Miracles happen there and lives are changed. I urge you to donate to Homeboy Industries to help their work to continue. To find out how you can help toward the continuing work of Homeboy Industries, click HERE.
And if you love gala fund raiser events, Homeboy Industries celebrates its 25th Anniversary at Lo Maximo on April 27th, 2013.
News Update: At LAX, Homeboy Bakery just opened in Terminal 4! Be sure to visit for an assortment of freshly made bagels, baked goods, pastries, and deli sandwiches. Homeboy Bakery is among many social enterprises run by Father Greg Boyle, founder of the Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit outreach organization that gives hard-to-place men, women and teens an opportunity to work in a safe, supportive community while learning soft and concrete jobs skills.