Fresh bread, fresh start for ex-gang members

Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles opened its fourth location last week, providing jobs, training, and hope to former street toughs.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

As the smell of baking dough wafts into an upstairs snack room, two former rival gang members cross paths and sightlines with a pregnant pause.

"Whussup homies?" says Gustavo Mojica, standing on a prosthetic leg that replaces the real one he lost in a shoot-out in 2000 defending "East L.A. 13," a well-known local gang.

"Gus!… hope you stayin' focused…," says Luis "Lulu" Rivera, formerly of TMC (The Mob Crew) known for drug dealing.

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The former enemies today are more likely to share a high-five than reach for a weapon. They are co-workers at Homeboy Industries, a nonprofit rehabilitation center for former gang members founded 20 years ago by Father Gregory Boyle, a parish priest in the Boyle Heights neighborhood near downtown.

A spacious new bakery and a training and job development center opened here last week, on the site where the old bakery burned down in a 1999 fire. The fourth location since 1988, the new building includes tattoo removal, counseling, and classes in financial literacy, decisions for healthy living, computer basics, anger management, and Alcoholics Anonymous.

In a county considered the gang capital of America, with some 86,000 gang members, the facility represents a growing acceptance of a gang-control tactic that redirects youths, and that was reviled when it was first introduced.

To Father Boyle, the idea was that controlling gangs needed to be about much more than police enforcement. Gangs are not a crime issue, Boyle says, but rather a social problem – perhaps even a community health issue.

"Twenty years ago what we did for gangs was completely wrongheaded, and sure-footed in its wrongheadedness … everyone wanted to give a blank check to law enforcement to ask them to solve the problem," says Boyle. He points to a recent Los Angeles City Council study that found that in the past three decades the city has spent $50 billion to deal with the gang problem and now has six times as many gang members.

Hoping to change the enforcement-only model, Boyle has held to his maxim that "nothing stops a bullet like a job." Begun as a community program based out of a small parish for eight local gangs, Homeboy has expanded to include more than 600 gangs across Los Angeles County.

The enterprise now includes the new 5,000-square-foot bakery (with a cafe coming soon), a silk screening operation that prints logos on apparel and merchandise, and a landscaping and graffiti-removal service.

All the while, Boyle's organization has focused on encouraging young people to turn their lives around, by giving them education, financial responsibility, and a sense of self-worth.

"The truth is that it's never been a crime issue … [with] just law enforcement behind the wheel. Now we have all these other stakeholders: clergy, teachers, parents, social workers, mental-health professionals; that's healthy."

At the christening of the new facility last week, which includes legal services and mental-health counseling, Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa noted the organization's role in providing a fresh start, saying "these kids are getting a second chance at opportunity to develop a skill and alternative to life of crime and gangs."

Boyle and his former "gangbangers" like to tweak that comment: Homeboy Industries often gives many their first chance, they say.

"I was sick and tired of going back and forth to jail and wanted to make it in the world in the right way for the first time," says Dennis Payne. Five months ago he was making $500 to $600 a day selling drugs near the Nickerson Gardens housing project, "not including what I paid for my own drugs and clothes and car," he says. Now he makes less than $8 an hour as a clerical assistant to Homeboys' chief financial officer, but says he has a better self-image.

"I promised my mother I would do right and came in here, and Father Boyle hired me on the spot," Mr. Payne says.

Homeboy Industries employs about 250 former gang members and at-risk youths – most of whom start by earning minimum wage and slowly work their way up. Officials say they reach out to 600 gangs, offering services to about 1,000 people from 45 different ZIP Codes.

The organization operates on a yearly budget of about $4.8 million, three-quarters of which comes from foundations, grants, and individual contributions, and the remaining $1.2 million from sales of goods and services.

Boyle's approach is receiving kudos from Los Angeles's gang researchers.

"I think [Boyle] needs to be canonized," says Constance Rice, author of the multiyear gang study for the L.A. City Council. "He takes people that are ready to get out of la vida loca [the crazy life] and helps them believe in themselves by giving them an exit ramp out of gangs. I call that the soul-reclamation business."

Part of that stems from the sense of community Homeboy Industries promotes, where blacks, Latinos, and Asians call out words of encouragement as they pass one another.

"Former gang members like to work here because they have the same sense of belonging that once held them in a gang," says Luis Rivera, now a job counselor. Boyle says learning how to reenvision one's former enemy is crucial.

"This place is filled with enemies," says Boyle. "So if gangs are bastions of conditional love, then Homeboy Industries seeks to be this community of unconditional love … and it jostles the idea of demonizing [by] putting them in here amidst a real sense of kinship that creates a disconnect with that gang world."

Although the number of employed former gang members is relatively small compared with the overall number of gang members in the city (39,000 in the city of Los Angeles), police, city councilors, academics, and gang experts agree that part of Homeboy Industries's strength is symbolic.

"Every year we have a company picnic and baseball tournament, and it's like the United Nations out there," says Boyle. "We have something like 300 people with spouses and kids, and it's extraordinary ….[that] these guys used to be shooting at each other and now they are on the same team."

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