The ceiling leaked, the oven broke, the bakery closed and later burned down, but Father Greg Boyle didn’t let that stop him from his mission of serving up hope, healing, jobs and a new life to former gang members.
Father Greg or Father G, as he’s referred to by his homeboys and homegirls, is a 61-year-old Jesuit Priest, who says he wanted to change what was happening in his parish back in 1988.
“Dolores Mission was the poorest parish in Los Angeles, nestled between two public housing projects — Pico Gardens and Aliso Village,” Father Greg says.
“So, we had these gangs at war with each other, so I started to bury kids. I buried my first young person in 1988, and then I buried my 200th about three (3) weeks ago.”
At the time, the Pico-Aliso area had the highest level of gang activity in Los Angeles.
Homeboy Industries began when a concerned group of Angelenos, led by Father Greg, asked a simple question, “Can we improve the health and safety of our community through jobs and education rather than through suppression and incarceration?” The answer was, “Yes!”
Members of Dolores Mission Church and Father Greg found a few caring business owners willing to hire former gang members, and “Jobs for a Future” was created. Seeking a way out of gang life, 70 young people started to work.
Father Greg says one thing led to another. First, he started a school, then a jobs program, and then social enterprises.
Father Greg describes his journey in Spanglish mixed with some street lingo.
He says they don’t have a problem getting people to come to Homeboy.
“They come here when they’re ready. Our program is not for those who need help. It’s only for those who want help. Otherwise, it doesn’t work. It takes what it takes and they have to cooperate, but the folks who you would least expect to cooperate [will] cooperate.”
He adds, “I’ve never met anybody who couldn’t be helped… never ever.”
Father Greg says their program and message has changed over the years.
“Initially we had something like ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job’, and then I think we saw what was more important was healing… that you really need to heal people. That sometimes if there’s no healing and you have a job, then people are… they even with a job or a career even, they reoffend because there’s no essential healing that’s happened.“
He adds that it’s about more than just giving them a purpose or passion.
“You also have to do the work… to heal the wounds from childhood – stuff that you’ve done… stuff that’s been done to you.”
“In the old days we would just dispatch people to jobs, and that didn’t really kind of work. So now we’re doing something else. We don’t want anybody to leave here without having healed,” he adds.
“We don’t force therapy on them, but it’s here and most people are in and it becomes pretty clear that this would be helpful if they did it.”
“It’s all about a lethal absence of hope and if you can infuse them with a sense of hope and a reason to get up in the morning and then also help heal their trauma and then perhaps even deliver mental health services in a timely fashion, so this is what this population needs.”
Father Greg says he’s changed how he’s seen things over the years.
“I think in the early days I worked with gangs and not just gang members, and now I don’t do that at all. I don’t regret that I did it, but I’d never do it again.
“And so, we say, ‘We don’t work with gangs. We work with gang members.’
“If you work with gangs then you’re serving the cohesion of the gang, and that’s something you don’t want to do.”
Father Greg shares dozens of stories in his book, Tattoos on the Heart.
He says the unrest of 1992 was unlike anything he’s ever seen in Los Angeles. But he believes his neighborhood may have been spared because of their efforts to employ and rehabilitate gang members.
“The National Guard arrived in our projects several days after the initial explosion of things, but we didn’t need them there. Things didn’t explode in this, the poorest of communities in Los Angeles, where everyone fully expected mayhem. I suspect the reason they didn’t was that we had so many strategically employed gang members who finally had a stake in keeping the projects from igniting that the peace was kept.”
Because Father Greg as much as said this in a Los Angeles Times interview about the riot, Hollywood producer Ray Stark summoned him and donated enough money to turn an abandoned warehouse into a bakery.
“Ray suggested some ideas that I had to respectfully dismiss. Ray gave up and asked, “What do you think I should do with my money?” I told him that an old bakery was for sale across the street from the church. He could buy it, and we could bring rival gang members together. We could call it The Homeboy Bakery.”
It was then that the first social enterprise, Homeboy Bakery, was born. Two months later, Homeboy Tortilleria opened in Downtown Los Angeles.
“Hands that once pointed guns now pressed and shaped dough every morning.”
But in 1994, when the ceiling leaked, the oven broke and the bakery closed, Father Greg found new partners: a worker from the Southern California Gas Company repaired the oven free of charge and USC Medical Center offered to buy whatever the bakery could turn out.
Then in 1999, the bakery burned down, but Father Greg didn’t let that stop him. Homeboy continued to grow and expand and more businesses and social programs were added. By 2001, Homeboy Industries was an independent non-profit. In 2007, Homeboy moved to it’s current Los Angeles headquarters.
In his book, Tattoos of the Heart, Father Greg tells a story about how they began tattoo removal: “Because [of] a guy named Ramiro, a gang member fresh out of prison. Ramiro had “F*** THE WORLD” tattooed on his forehead. “He told me his job search was not going so great. I’m only imagining him at McDonalds: ‘Do you want fries with that?” and seeing mothers grab their kids, fleeing the store. So, I hired him at the bakery, and little by little we erased his forehead. We have since added many laser machines and doctors.”
Thirty-five (35) volunteer doctors perform more than 3,000 tattoo removals for 950 clients per month.
Father Greg says that businesses have come and gone at Homeboy Industries. “We have starts and stops, but anything worth doing is worth failing at. We started Homeboy Plumbing. That didn’t go so well. Who knew people didn’t want gang members in their homes? I just didn’t see that coming.”
Another story in his book is about how a homie named David, who had sunk to homelessness and heroin addiction, was beating himself up one day.
“Look, David, I tell him, wanting to cut his meat up for him, ‘You have to crawl before you can walk, and then walk before you can run.’ David’s eyes soften with tears. ‘Yeah, but I know I can fly. I just need to catch a gust o’ wind.’ Homeboy Industries wants to be that gust.”
According to the LAPD there are more than 450 active gangs in the City of Los Angeles with a combined membership of over 45,000 individuals.
In Los Angeles County there are approximately 120,000 gang members and 1,100 gangs. The age range is typically around 14 but sometimes younger and older.
Father Greg is also working on Global Homeboy Network, which has 46 programs in the U. S. and 11 programs outside the U. S. Representatives recently came to Homeboy Industries for a two-day conference called “The Gathering,” to get technical assistance to start comparable programs.
Over the years Homeboy Industries has added the following:
Father Greg says they’ve helped thousands of young people looking for a second chance and finding community.
He adds, “Gang affiliations are left outside as these young people work together, side by side, learning the mutual respect that comes from shared tasks and challenges.”
Homeboy Industries’ biggest challenge is funding.
“It costs $14 million a year to run this place,” he adds. About one-fourth comes from their businesses, but he says they have to “beg for the rest”.
Another challenge is trying to get folks to see how valuable this is to have a place like this in place.
His book, Tattoos on the Heart, is a must-read about his incredible journey. All net proceeds from the book go to Homeboy Industries.
Father Greg reminds us that “no life is less valuable than another.”
Today, Homeboy is internationally recognized as the most successful gang intervention and re-entry program of its kind.
Each year more than 10,000 former gang members from across Los Angeles come through Homeboy Industries’ doors in an effort to make a positive change. They are welcomed into a community of mutual kinship, love, and a wide variety of services.
Homeboy also has about 200 volunteers.
Hope has an address – it’s 130 W. Bruno Street.
“It’s a pretty magical, wonderful place.”
To make a donation, to get involved or learn more about their programs, visit their website at http://www.homeboyindustries.org
To Get Help at Homeboy Industries:
“Each person has to come to our headquarters and walk in the front door. We look to hire those with the MOST barriers to employment: youth recently released from juvenile camps and halls, or adults from prison, those with visible tattoos and those who are trying to leave their gang. There is a process to joining our program that can take several visits, but the first step is coming into our headquarters so we can meet you!”
GREGORY J. BOYLE, S.J., Founder and Executive Director of Homeboy Industries
Father Gregory Boyle was born in Los Angeles and is one of eight children. He entered the Society of Jesus (Jesuits) in 1972 and was ordained a priest in 1984. He received his BA in English from Gonzaga University, an MA in English from Loyola Marymount University and advanced theology degrees from The Weston School of Theology and the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley.
He has taught at Loyola High School in Los Angeles; was chaplain in the Islas Marias Penal Colony in Mexico and at Folsom prison and worked with Christian Base Communities in Cochabamba, Bolivia. He was appointed pastor of Dolores Mission Church in the Boyle Heights neighborhood of Los Angeles in 1986 where he served through 1992. Homeboy Industries was born in 1988 and is now the largest gang intervention, re-hab and re-entry program in the United States.
Father Greg is the author of the New York Times Bestselling book, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion.” His debut book has been honored by SCIBA (Southern California Indie Booksellers Association), Pen USA, Publishers Weekly, and Goodreads Choice Awards. He has received numerous honorary degrees, awards and recognitions including the Civic Medal of Honor, the California Peace Prize, Humanitarian of the Year from Bon Appetit Magazine, and in 2011 was inducted into the California Hall of Fame. He has served on the State Commission for Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, The National Youth Gang Center Board and the Attorney General’s Defending Childhood Task Force.