The following story appeared in the Park Labrea News and Beverly Press 70th Anniversary issue, published April 21. To view the entire issue, click here.
When Father Gregory Boyle was a boy living in Hancock Park, he never imagined the impact he would have on the lives of others. Yet while serving the Dolores Mission in Boyle Heights during the late 1980s, Boyle saw how gangs destroyed people’s lives and knew he needed to help. Since he founded Homeboy Industries nearly three decades ago, he has given some of the most troubled Angelenos a second chance.
Boyle, a jovial bespectacled priest with white hair, said his Jesuit teachers at Loyola High School inspired him to enter the priesthood. He later taught at Loyola from 1979-81. He was ordained in 1984 and then accepted his first assignment in Cochabamba, Bolivia.
After returning to Los Angeles in 1986, he was assigned to the Dolores Mission, where he witnessed the struggles working-class Latino families in his parish faced every day. He committed himself to helping them improve their lives.
At that time, many families were being torn apart by the Immigration Reform and Control Act, which allowed some people to remain in the United States while others were deported. However, immigration issues were quickly overshadowed by gang violence. In 1988, Boyle led a funeral service for a young parishioner who was stabbed to death in a gang fight, which he said reinforced his pledge to help untangle the lives of young men who were mired in the downward spiral of gangs, drugs and crime.
“That began the decade of death, which was 1988 to 1998, where you had steady shootings morning, noon and night. We were in the projects, which was my parish – Pico Gardens and Aliso Village – and it had the highest concentration of gang activity in all of Los Angeles. If L.A. was the gang capital of the world, my parish was the gang capital of Los Angeles.”
Boyle started an alternative school at the Dolores Mission for 12-to-14-years-olds with disciplinary problems who had been expelled from school. He sought out employers willing to hire troubled youth from his community as part of Jobs For the Future. After the limited success of the jobs program and civil unrest during the L.A. riots in 1992, Boyle launched the Homeboy Bakery that year. It was his first social enter-prise giving jobs and hope to gang members who pledged to turn their lives around.
Boyle said the uphill battle surprised him – not getting the gang members to accept help, but criticism from law enforcement, which accused Boyle of “coddling” criminals when a tough approach was the societal norm.
“In those days, there was such a wholesale demonizing of this population. And so if they are the enemy – which they were to law enforcement and a large sector of the population – then the friend of our enemy is our enemy. We had bomb threats, hate mail, you name it,” he said. “They always used [the term] coddling, which was somewhat confusing. If you had a drug problem and you went to a rehab, would [they] accuse the rehab of coddling you? It doesn’t make any sense. If you were sick and went to a hospital, and they said, ‘You’re just coddling that person with cancer,’ it wouldn’t make any sense. That’s how irrational it all was.”
Boyle soon expanded the operation to create Homeboy Industries. Young people often lack parental supervision and turn to gangs for a sense of family, so Homeboy Industries created a family-environment offering a sense of belonging, Boyle said. He continued job training and re-entry programs, and added avenues for “homeboys” to finish high school or obtain a GED. Homeboy Industries also removed tattoos and offered counseling – a valuable element that helps give people a fresh start and turn their lives around.
After 10 years, societal views on gang rehabilitation and programs like Homeboy also changed. Boyle said he suddenly began receiving support instead of resistance from law enforcement and legislators.
“People suddenly began to become smart on crime rather than mindlessly, futily tough on crime. And then they went, ‘Wow, this place really works. If they are engaging this population positively, then that means law enforcement won’t have to engage them negatively!’ It was incremental, and it took time for people to put a human face to it,” Boyle said. “The culture at the time was ‘let’s wipe them out and round them up.’ It didn’t work. I realized we could actually strike while the iron was hot and do something sensible.”
Boyle said Homeboy Industries initially adopted the mantra “Nothing stops a bullet like a job,” but just as the program evolved, so has his approach. Boyle now prefers “Community trumps gangs” because a strong sense of community is key to long-term success.
“It’s kind of old and creaky now, ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job.’ I’ve sort of retired it,” Boyle said. “In the earliest days, that’s what we did. In our earliest days, we were dispatching gang members to jobs. But now, it’s not about that. It’s about healing. A job helps, but healing is forever. So that’s where we want to be.”
“It’s really about healing. What will guarantee someone doesn’t re-offend? – only healing,” Boyle said. “We dis-covered that with a job, people were re-offending because no healing had taken place. [Healing] happens in a community of tenderness here, where people pay attention to each other and people do their work, and people come to terms with what’s been done to them and what they’ve done. Whatever hardness got shellacked in them in prison gets softened here. Gang members would not come here it they didn’t experience it as working.”
Homeboy Industries expanded its programs over the years to include Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery, the Homegirl Café and Catering, Homeboy Farmers Market and the Homeboy Diner at Los Angeles City Hall. Homeboy Industries moved into its current headquarters at Alameda and Bruno Streets in 2007 and is now a multi-million dollar operation. More than 10,000 former gang members pass through Homeboy Industries’ doors every year.
Boyle has been recognized for his work with former gang members, including by the James Beard Foundation, which recently named him a 2016 Humanitarian of the Year. Boyle received the recognition for his help through Homeboy’s packaged foods, the Homegirl Café and Catering and the Homeboy Diner.
“I am honored and humbled by this recognition, but also heartened, because it acknowledges a community on the margins that has long been demonized,” Boyle said. “This award imagines a circle of compassion out-side of which no one is left standing.”
Homeboy Industries depends on donations. It receives limited government support. Private contributions are key, and Boyle is hopeful more people will buy into the Homeboy Industries concept.
“It’s money, money, and did I mention money? Like 5 percent of our overall needs are provided by government, which is preposterous, because we provide this utterly unique service to the county. It has a singular impact on public safety. We should be at 25 percent,” Boyle said. “The county, the probation department and the city should step up to the plate. We provide such an extraordinary service to the city and county, it’s kind of unconscionable that we don’t get funds for it. If there is another place in the county or the city that serves more people and engages this population – folks who are violent and serious of-fenders – if there is another place that does that more than we do, then give them the money.”
Boyle said he is no longer as close to the day-to-day operations of Homeboy Industries as before, but he maintains an office near the front door and consults with clients daily to ensure they stay on track. He is busy writing a second book that he expects to finish later this year that will include Homeboy Industries success stories. Although he declined to share its content, he added the title will be “Barking to the Choir: Now Entering the Kinship of God.”
“The title comes from me telling one kid, because he was showing up late and was missing and coloring out-side the lines, and I was running it down to him. He stopped me and said, ‘You’re barking to the choir.’ It’s merging ‘barking up the wrong tree’ and ‘preaching to the choir,’ and I liked the combo nature of it,” Boyle said. “I built a whole book based on his title. It’s more stories from here, stories of the homies, but also trying to underscore themes of compassion and healing and the exploration of good and evil.”
Boyle has no plans to retire. He said Homeboy Industries will continue spreading its message of hope and sharing its approach with communities throughout the world. He frequently travels to spread this message, and the Homeboy Industries concept is now followed in anti-gang programs in 47 U.S. cities and 13 other countries. In approximately five years, Boyle hopes to build bigger headquarters at the cur-rent site to serve more people.
He added that he is proud of his accomplishments and isn’t slowing down.
“Jesuits retire in the graveyard. I’ve got people to run this place. It’s already moved forward without me. The homies run the place and I am kind of like the chancellor,” Boyle added. “I don’t care about legacies. It’s been a good run. I wouldn’t trade my life for anyone’s.”