Jobs not Jails
Homeboy Industries embraces, nurtures, and trains former gang members for the work force—and a better future
"In this place of which you say, 'It is a waste . . .' there shall once more be heard the voice of mirth and the voice of gladness . . . the voices of those who sing."
Let's say you hear about a job site where 85 percent of the workers are on probation or parole from prison. What chance of survival would you give such an enterprise? Then let's say all these workers are former members of rival gangs and have killed each others' friends. What would you imagine the atmosphere of that job site to be? This is Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program in the United States. Founded by Father Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, Homeboy assists at-risk and former gang-involved youth in Los Angeles in becoming contributing members of the community through jobs in its own businesses, job training, and job placement. Yet above all else, Homeboy is a community of people committed to one another, providing youth an array of services that address their various acute needs. When Homeboy Industries helps these former gang members redirect their lives and find hope for the future, everybody wins.
It all began in 1986 when Gregory Boyle was appointed pastor of Dolores Mission in a neighborhood of East Los Angeles, where he served through 1992. The parents of Dolores Mission—the poorest parish in Los Angeles, located among thousands of low-income apartments—continually came to Boyle requesting help for their kids who were in gangs. So Father Greg, eventually called "G-Dog" or "Father G" or simply "G" by the homies (in gang parlance, a "dog" is someone who stands by you no matter what), began patrolling the projects at night, riding his bike. His reception was chilly until he began visiting the homies when they were locked up in jail or wounded in the hospital.
In 1988 Boyle launched Jobs for a Future (JFF). Besides establishing a daycare program and an alternative high school (where one principal lasted only a day), this parish-led program worked to find legitimate employment for young people. Its success shaped the model followed today, which demonstrates that many gang members are secretly eager to leave the danger and destruction of gang life.
During that time Boyle's philosophy began to shift. "We don't work with gangs here, we work with gang members," says Boyle. "In the old days I used to work on gang peace treaties and cease-fires, but I don't do that anymore. I don't want to validate the gang or supply oxygen to gangs. Now it's one gang member at a time."
To reach those individuals, Boyle says Mass and speaks at dozens of regional youth camps, jails, and prisons. In conversations following his talks, he stands ready to hand out a card with his name and phone number on it. He invites young men and women to call him when they get out, offering to hook them up with a job, provide tattoo removal, and line them up with a counselor.
Each year about 8,000 former gang members from over 800 gangs come through Homeboy's doors seeking help to make a positive change. An additional 4,000 gang-affiliated family and community members also come seeking help.
As executive director of Homeboy Industries, Boyle has become a nationally known speaker and a consultant to youth services and governmental agencies, policymakers, and employers. In his frequent travels—he gives about 200 talks a year all over the country—he usually takes homies with him, an experience that can prove life-changing in itself. Boyle and several homies were featured speakers at the White House Conference on Youth in 2005, at the invitation of Laura Bush. Yet he's still just "Father G." Past the glass-fronted reception desk of the Homeboy Industries building, he can often be found talking with homies in his office.
Homeboys make good
In response to the 1992 race-related riots in Los Angeles, Jobs for a Future launched its first in-house business, Homeboy Bakery, in an abandoned bakery across the street from its office. It provided training, work experience, and, above all, the opportunity for rival gang members to work side by side. The success of the bakery provided the groundwork for additional businesses, thus prompting JFF in 2001 to become an independent nonprofit organization, which they called Homeboy Industries. It has since grown into a national model. Its headquarters, completed in 2007, is a two-story, 21,000-square-foot facility, most of which houses the bakery, a restaurant (Homegirl Café), and a retail store (Homeboy Merchandise). It is also headquarters to Homeboy Industries itself, as well as its solar panel installation training and certification program. This $8.5 million dollar building is located in gang-neutral territory in an industrial area with a view of LA's city hall in the background. Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery is located about one mile off campus.
Hector Verdugo knows this part of the city, and its culture of hopelessness, well. "All my family members were gang members and drug addicts," he explains. "My father died a week before my twin and I were born. Gang members were always in our home, so we saw their lifestyle firsthand. I remember as a small child holding a real gun and being amazed at how heavy it was."
As Verdugo grew older, he began to participate in gang life, first going along for the ride and then moving on to home robbery. "In the beginning it's fun and crazy, but then death starts coming around you when your friends get killed. Then you want to drink, do more drugs, and hurt more people. You admire gang life and hate it at same time."
Eventually Verdugo became a drug dealer—two years of prison had provided the "business school" opportunity to learn how to move drugs across the country and maximize profit. He lived the high life.
"With money, I could go out of my neighborhood. To others, that's nothing, but to us it was everything. I bought a van, filled it up with my homeboys, went to the beach, on shopping sprees up and down Rodeo Drive, buying whatever we wanted, clothes and watches." He paid $12,000 for a home stereo system. "It was ridiculous," he says in retrospect, but it couldn't disguise the pain that lay beneath his genuine yearning for freedom.
"What comes with this life is the understanding that you're hurting people through the drugs you sell," says Verdugo. "I know what drugs do to families, so that got on my conscience. There was always a lifeline of spirituality inside me, but I had to ignore it. I would justify my drug dealing—'I'm not selling to my people in the projects'—but my conscience started talking to me. God would say, 'These are people.' That started messing with me.
"I never stepped foot in high school, but I knew I had something in me to make it work without doing this," Verdugo continues. Tired of the "network of hurt," he tried to "go legit" with a restaurant and a construction business, but found it difficult. "The legit life is harder than the illegitimate life," he says. "You got to pay workman's comp. If someone says no, you can't forcefully make them say yes. You have to do marketing, make cold calls. It was a whole different thing. I failed in it."
One day, when all his construction equipment froze at the same time, he said, "OK, God. What do you want me to do?
"I was miserable—trying to make it work on a bad foundation," continues Verdugo. "I was on sand when I should have been on rock. I started to get drunk and party. My relationship with my kids was bad. I didn't know what God wanted me to do. A friend said, 'Go talk to Father G.' I'd met him in juvenile hall years before. I couldn't believe he was still around."
When Verdugo met with Father Greg, he thought maybe the priest could pull some strings and get him into college. But Boyle said, "No, I want you to work for me." Verdugo refused to take up a slot at Homeboy, saying he could find a job elsewhere. Boyle insisted, "I want you to work here. God wants you to work here."
"Who's going to argue with God?" Verdugo thought, so he went to work at Homeboy. "I felt good. I felt right. I'd been waiting for that feeling. Then I found out what my pay was!" he exclaims—$8 an hour. "I wondered how I would make it. But I felt like I was living in the gospels when Jesus fed the 5,000 with a few loaves of bread.
"I've been here ever since," he concludes. "I'm a rich man now. I've gotten custody of my kids. I love my job."
Jobs mean community, hope
A distinctive feature of Homeboy Industries is its small businesses, in which difficult-to-place individuals are hired in transitional jobs. Attired in silk-screened shirts sporting the phrase, "Jobs Not Jails," they find a safe, supportive environment in which to learn both concrete and relational job skills while simultaneously building their work experience. As former rivals work together, they experience true friendship and community in place of the limited cohesion of gang life.
Job and work-readiness trainees are also required to attend some kind of class each day. If they're tardy three times, they have to talk to Verdugo, who is now associate executive director.
"We find out what's going on," he says. "We tell them, 'We love having you here, but you have to want to be here. A lot of people need this place, but your tardies are saying you don't really want this place.'" Most of the time, they start coming to work on time. Often Verdugo talks to their case manager to figure out if they need counseling, a drug program, or legal help. "They'll give up on us before we ever give up on them. I can't give up," he explains. "We have to find a way."
Verdugo has learned to do what Father G does: to pick up on people's patterns. He watches a person's gaze. Is his chin up? "If not," says Verdugo, "I go to him and give him some extra love. If I see that he's on drugs, we test him. He may need to go to rehab or an outpatient drug program. Even with all the bad experiences of my life, I'm making a difference in people's lives. The love I get from G, I push it forward to someone else. What an honor it is to be here and to work with these beautiful people. We're all from different barrios and different races, but we're one big family."
When trainees are ready, they work with employment counselors to prepare to transition to jobs outside Homeboy. These counselors search out available jobs and work one-on-one with clients to develop resumés, hone interview skills, and find good employment matches. They go out into the community and build relationships with local businesses, searching out employers who are willing to work with parolees or former gang members, taking the time to overcome their fears and reservations.
As Verdugo explains, "We're putting them back on the track of life, love, health, prosperity, helping them find jobs with friends of Homeboy that say, 'I want to take a homeboy to hire. I want to take a chance.' But you're not just taking a chance, you're also changing a life, and not just one life but also his kids'. My grandfather was a gang member, my father was a gang member, I was. What about my kids if I don't step out of this? I gotta change me, then my kids change. The ripple effects are incredible."
The emphasis on work is strategic—Jobs for a Future and now Homeboy Industries. One of the organization's mottoes is "Nothing Stops a Bullet Like a Job." A job enables former gang members to have self-respect, to learn the value of accomplishment, and to receive affirmation for it as well as to pay for a place to live and provide for a wife and children, which many have.
"Work is ennobling," says Boyle, "and there's no such thing as a job that doesn't bring dignity. Yet jobs only do 85 percent of what needs to get done. The classes, the therapy, and so on move them toward wholeness." With the help of a case manager, each homie chooses from 30 education classes: 12-step meetings; charter high school classes; and classes in job-readiness, parenting, anger management, relationship building, grief and loss, computer job skills, creative writing, and music and art enrichment. Mental health counseling and legal services are available as needed. The County of Los Angeles Probation Department granted approval to Homeboy's court-mandated domestic violence batterers intervention program, the first to open in eight years.
So Homeboy is not only a work site, but also a training program and a therapeutic community. Leaving gang life is a process. Redirecting their lives in a positive direction strengthens not only the individual, but also that person's family, enabling that person to be a leader and role model.
The goal is to infuse hope in those for whom hope is foreign. It promotes the idea that God is for us, no matter what, replacing the distorted idea that God watches people to pounce on them at the first false move. The latter resembles gang life, in which every mistake is remembered and held against a member forever. Gang members are required to do whatever is asked of them, no matter how cruel; if they don't do it, they're deemed to be "no good."
Disengaging from gang life requires finding a relational replacement, and Boyle believes community is the only thing that is compelling enough to do this.
"We want to illuminate the dark corners of the empty gang life," explains Boyle, "and replace it with community, which is a sense of belonging, feeling that you're a part of something. A community of kinship is real. The gang milieu feels like it's real, but it isn't. It's hollow. I always tell them, 'The difference between your neighborhood and this place is that we have your back. The gang doesn't.'"
Ray Moreno, who has worked at Homeboy for about five years, says that Homeboy helps former gang members realize their glamorous gang days are over. "Nobody really accepts you in the neighborhood," says Moreno, "but here at Homeboy we're not judged. Here people value you for who you are. You find honest friendship and a steady paycheck."
The folks at Homeboy seek to tell each person the truth of unconditional love: They are exactly what God had in mind when God made them. Their life does not matter less because of what they've done and what has been done to them. Hope abounds.
Finding God in all things
But fostering such intentional kinship among homies can be taxing to the spirit and a "a pretty punishing hard reality," says Boyle. Even those who escape the gang life can end up at the wrong end of a gun: Boyle has already presided at the burial of about 200 of his homies. Taking one day at a time and staying focused on the present helps him keep going, especially since the economic downturn, which has necessitated laying off a sizable percentage of his workers, many of whom have refused to leave, preferring to remain on the job and work for free rather than return to the streets.
"We've been through really tough moments here," says Boyle. "But I don't really entertain discouragement or giving up. I've been doing this a long enough time."
When asked in what ways he encounters Jesus in his work, Boyle responds, "Only all the time. If you're attentive, that will be a constant in your life." But he admits to getting "kind of anxious."
"I see all these people out there waiting for me," he explains, nodding toward the folks lining up outside his office to speak with him. "That's what the day is like. They come in and their hair's on fire."
Boyle likes the African proverb "A person becomes a person through other people." In spite of and through all the challenges, "There can be no doubt that the homies have returned me to myself," writes Boyle in his book, Tattoos on the Heart (Free Press, 2011), which tells tales from two decades of his work with gang members. "I've learned, with their patient guidance, to worship Christ as he lives in them."
Boyle objects to the idea he can do this work because he's special. "People are always disqualifying themselves. They say, 'I can't do this because I'm not Latino, or I'm not tattooed, or I'm not a felon or a parolee.' Then you lose sight that this is not a specialized, rarefied thing but just a relational thing: human beings connecting to human beings."
Homies like Hector Verdugo prove that. "I'm not a holy roller," he says, "but God is with me every step of the day, every second. God whispers in my ear when I need courage to step up when I want to step down. In my mind I know this is not me; this is the spirit of love, which is the spirit of God. I still need more of it in my life. It's great when the conversation opens up, and people ask me questions, and I get to give the respect and glory to God. People walk away getting it. Homeboy is a place that's about action; we just do it. That makes more of a difference than anything else."
Jan Johnson (JanJohnson.org) is a writer, speaker, and spiritual director. She is the author of 18 books, including Enjoying the Presence of God, When the Soul Listens, and Savoring God's Word, all from NavPress, and Abundant Simplicity (from IVP). She lives in Southern California.