Exploring the company we keep at UCI and beyond

Roller derby girls. God Without Religion. Harry Potter enthusiasts (fanatics?). These are a small sampling of the groups and organizations that have formed at the University of California, Irvine (UCI) and around Orange County. Members share a devotion to their cause and a desire to pursue it in collaboration with others, which are the subjects we examine in this blog.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Ebb and Flow: A Profile of Homeboy Industries

By Lauren Miller

In 2001, Los Angeles city officials counted 1,300 street gangs and 150,000 gang members in Los Angeles County. In the City of Los Angeles specifically, more than 400 gangs and 58,000 gang members exist.

It's a challenging feat of sorts to identify and understand how gangs in Los Angeles have formed. Some give economic reasons while others find the roots of gangs more culturally explanatory. Los Angeles's policy makers have their own ostensible solutions to altering conditions which may affect gang affiliation and violence. Grassroots organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America have their own formula for keeping kids away from the pressures of the streets. The Los Angeles Police Department implements problem solving tactics from within their Narcotics Division every day in their work.

Father Greg Boyle has his own solution too.

In 1992, while serving as pastor at Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights, Father Greg founded Homeboy Industries. Homeboy is, according to an article by Celeste Fremon, author of G-dog and the Homeboys, arguably the largest gang intervention program in the country. Homeboy assists at-risk persons and youth, former gang members, and formerly convicted felons to become positive and contributing members of society through job placement, training programs, and educational classes.

Luis Rivera is an ex-gang banger who started dealing drugs when he was just 13-years old. He had been in and out of juvenile hall three times and shot twice. He first met Father Greg the way every teenager growing up in Boyle Heights met him; on the streets. Father Greg often could be seen in the East Los Angeles neighborhood riding around in his beach cruiser, cracking jokes with Mothers and Fathers and getting to know their children. Luis remembers that "Father Greg knew your Mom, your Dad, your Grandma, your Grandpa. He was around enough. Then he would say, 'My son, you've got to stop dealing drugs. You have to stop this lifestyle'. If you got shot, he'd be there in the hospital. Every time you ended up in jail, he'd visit you."

Father Boyle created quite an impression among the youth of the streets; they looked to him for guidance. In a world where prominent drug dealers act like movie star idols to young children, and teenagers are pressured into gang affiliations as young as 10-years old, first impressions are everything. However, Father Greg realized that no matter how many times he cruised the neighborhood and became a loving mentor to the teenagers, he still saw no concrete change in the community. "There were still two shootings a day, more at night," Luis remembers. "Father Greg was burying more people than marrying people. He realized the love he was showing us wasn't enough. We needed something concrete to take us away from the lifestyle."

Father Greg's concrete solution to keeping kids off the streets was simple: provide them with early opportunities to learn good work ethics and keep them away from the pressures to make "fast money" (money obtained by dealing or selling drugs). Father Greg and his non-profit partners bought an industrial size office building in downtown L.A. and created miscellaneous jobs around the office building for the teenagers he'd mentored on the streets over the years. Luis comments that "right away Father would only hire homeboys he'd met on the streets. He just handed out jobs." Luis was one of those lucky homeboys. He started getting paid as a window washer. Now he is a tour guide for the tours that pass through Homeboy every day. Rwando Cruz, a 27-year old Homeboy employee ho grew up in L.A. and went to Roosevelt High School, also knew Father Greg. He offered Cruz his first job as a cleaner and sweeper in the building when he was 16-years old. He continued to work for Homeboy and today he does merchandise layouts and helps run the Education and Curriculum program.

Homeboy Industries is exactly that; an industry of grand proportions. After miscellaneous office jobs within Homeboy began to fill up, Father Greg branched into another portal of business and opened Homeboy Bakery. Former gang bangers were then trained to bake, cook, and sell products on-site. Their pastries are also featured and sold in the University of Southern California's on-campus snack stop Shop Café. Back in the bakery's kitchen, former criminals turn in their semi-automatic handguns for pastry bags and baseball caps for chef's hats. Here, former gang rivals work side by side to chop and stir, bake and broil, season and spice. Here, amazing things happen. Today, Homeboy is still growing. Its businesses include Homegirl Cafe, Homeboy Maintenance, Homeboy Merchandise, Homeboy Silkscreen and Embroidery, and The Homeboy Review, its literary magazine.

Besides being a thriving business, Homeboy is an organization whose main focus is to guide struggling criminals and at-risk teens away from the streets by offering free enrichment classes and programs. For example, a "Pathways to College" class is offered on Wednesdays. It is taught by a volunteer professor from USC. He sets up the classroom like a college lecture hall and spends the class period lecturing on the college application process. But more importantly than teaching the application process, Rwando comments that the teachers mostly teach confidence. He says, "The homeboys that come in are different cases from other people. The cookie cutter life doesn't work for them. Most aren't kids who will have high school diplomas, go to college, and land a job. They have certain gaps in their story." In an attempt to fill in the gaps in their stories, Homeboy places individuals in classes tailored to his or her own unique situation. Rwando adds, "That's why we have Latin classes and yoga classes in addition to math classes. We mix it up. It's providing people with the tools to become more well-rounded individuals."

Rwando also paints a more intriguing portrait of what Homeboy does, certainly a take on Homeboy's mission I have never heard before. He says, "Imagine a high school has certain components to it. It might have a counseling service for students but no part-time job searches. Or maybe it offers great college preparatory classes but has insufficient counseling. Now think of Homeboy. It's like Greg was like, 'Let me get one big-ass building and provide all of these things at once and then have ex-gang members running around! It's straight up nuts! But it somehow legitimately works. That's why I have a passion for it."

Rwando Cruz's workday is similarly just as crazy as Homeboy's business philosophy. He begins work at 8 a.m. and even though the office building closes at 5 p.m., he does not usually leave the office until 6 or 7 p.m. On a typical work day he recalls that, "one minute I'm giving somebody a practice test for their solar panel license class, then there's an art class that needs extra paper, then paperwork needs to get done, then so-and-so is having a meltdown or a fight breaks out. It drives me crazy when people say, 'My job is so stressful'. Really? Ya right! Come to my job- it is non-stop!"  
Despite Homeboy's seemingly magical business formula, it is not without its rough patches. In August 2009, it was reported in city-wide newspapers that Homeboy, a non-profit organization, was having financial problems. The report claims that Homeboy was running out of money and would eventually have to make cut-backs and furloughs within the organization. However, soon after the announcement, L.A. City Council approved a substantial contract between Homeboy and the L.A. Mayor's Office of Gang Reduction and Youth Development. Their doors remained open. Rwando comments that, "the non-profit world is such a crazy environment. First someone promises you $1 million, then they've changed their mind to $10,000, then they adjust it again. So are we financially stable right now? Sure, but will it always be like that? Maybe, maybe not. The thing is that Father Greg has an amazing attitude that holds this place together no matter what. If our budget problems are bad and he can't hire anybody, he's always said he'll just shut the doors, close it down. His idea is you're either in it 100% or not in it at all. We're gangstas, we ride until the end and if he can't hire and help even one kid, then none of the rest of the kids are being helped either." 

Discussions of success rates have also burdened and pressured Homeboy's existence. The first thing people want to know about a non-profit organization, especially one of Homeboy's grandeur and size, is what the success rate is or how effective the programs they offer actually are or how much the community is really seeing tangible change. To date, there have not been any significant studies on Homeboy's success rate as a gang prevention program. However, UCLA's Dr. Jorja Leap, a gang and youth violence expert, has begun a 5-year study of Homeboy with those results to be released in the near future.

But for the founders, employees, and supporters of Homeboy, success rates and numbers don't mean as much as success stories do. Rwando tells me later, "I hate the word success. All anyone ever asks about is 'What is your success rate?' or 'How many people are actually staying off the streets?". But people have to remember that the lives of these people are different from everybody else. You can't talk statistics. It's the kid that's here learning and socializing. It's the minute he's off the streets; that's his success story. These days we're graded on everything; what care you drive, what degree you have, how many zeros are in your bank account." It seems as if Homeboy is not fazed by pressures from the public to report success rate statistics. Rwando ends by brilliantly proclaiming, "If someone comes in here and feels like they can breathe easy among other rival gang members, that's a success story. If someone's not on guard during their lunch hour like in prison, that's a success story. It's bigger than granting high school diplomas, it's leaps and bounds. Success at Homeboy and beyond is like boxing. Ebb and flow baby, ebb and flow."


Reporting Notes

Observation includes:

-1 hour official tour at Homeboy

- 2 hours of observation at Homeboy

Interview includes:

- 1 hour interview with Luis Rivera from Homeboy

- 40 minute interview with Rwando Cruz from Homeboy

Documentation includes:

- LA Times article on Ralphs/Homeboy merger

- LA article on 2009 financial scare

- Reporting On Health blog article by Celeste Fremon

- LAPD gang map and statistics (LAPD website)

- Homeboy pamphlets and March class schedule

- Léon Bing's book Do or Die as reference

- Made in America: Crips and Bloods documentary

- Father G and the Homeboys documentary

- USC website

- Annual Report to Congress: "Creating a Safer America" provided by the US Bureau of Justice Assistance, 2000.

All photos used in this piece are credited to the photographers listed below each picture.

If you would like to read more about Luis Rivera please see the interview linked below.

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