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.
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.Skip to next paragraph
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"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.
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."