By Edwin Folven, 1/31/2013
25 years of gang intervention leaves lasting impression
As a teenager growing up in East Los Angeles, 29-year-old Richard Cabral said he didn’t have much hope or vision for the future. His life was mired in gangs and violence, and in his early 20s, he ended up in prison.
During five years of incarceration while fighting an attempted murder charge, which was dismissed, Cabral said he made a personal vow that if and when he got out of prison, he would seek a better path in life. That path led him to Homeboy Industries, the gang intervention program founded by Father Greg Boyle that has helped thousands of former gang members find jobs, earn high school diplomas and get their lives back on track. Homeboy Industries is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year. It has come a long way since its beginnings in the neighborhoods east of downtown Los Angeles.
Through Homeboy Industries, Cabral learned he had a passion for acting, and later landed positions as an extra on television shows and in films such as “Southland”, “Paranormal”, “End of Watch” and the upcoming Ridley Scott movie, “The Counselor”. He is currently helping to organize a program in conjunction with the Complex Theatre in Hollywood that will allow his homeboys and homegirls to also pursue a career in acting.
“I got out of prison five years ago, and I didn’t know where I was going. Some casting people came [to Homeboy Industries] because they wanted ‘the look’, and I got a part on ‘Southland’,” said Cabral, whose visible neck tattoos offer a glimpse into his past. “That seed was planted and it took off from there. It opened a door. I started a new life. I am really trying to get the homeboys to incorporate that idea and feed the art.”
Cabral’s story about turning his life around was echoed by many others at Homeboy Industries, such as Robert Amado, 36, who works in the organization’s curriculum department. Amado, who said he was incarcerated for most of his adult life, first heard about Homeboy Industries while serving time in juvenile hall, but he wasn’t ready to end his involvement with gangs at the time. It wasn’t until he spent five years in prison between 2005 and 2010 that he decided to look for new opportunities. After going through the program at Homeboy Industries, which included learning job skills at Homeboy Bakery, developing communications skills and having several tattoos removed, he began working at the facility, now hosting tours and helping others get back on track.
“I always believed in a change. It’s about building that structure, about taking accountability and working on ourselves,” Amado said. “Overall, I spent fourteen-and-a-half years in prison and I have now been out twenty-one months. As soon as I came out [of prison] on a Saturday, by Thursday I was on the clock here. I help facilitate class work for youth. It’s something you have to want to do for yourself, and you can find the opportunity here.”
“Father G”, as Boyle is affectionately called by the homeboys, said he came up with the idea to start a gang intervention program when he was first assigned to the Dolores Mission Parish in Boyle Heights. Gang violence was surging at the time, and murders were common in the neighborhood.
“I was losing lots of kids,” Boyle said. “I decided to look at ways to help stop the violence and put these kids on a productive path.”
Homeboy Industries first started as a job training program in which Boyle linked former gang members with employers. In 1992, he started the Homeboy Bakery in Boyle Heights, providing hands-on job opportunities in commercial baking. The organization grew quickly, and Boyle began incorporating new ventures that put former gang members to work, such as a silkscreening operation where apparel with the Homeboy logo is made.
They operated out of a facility in Boyle Heights until the organization became too large for the building. Boyle moved Homeboy Industries in 2007 to its present facility on Bruno Street, northeast of downtown Los Angeles. The bakery remains an integral part of the organization, along with the silkscreening operation. Additionally, Homeboy offers job training in food preparation through Homegirl Café and Catering, which is open at the facility on Bruno Street and has a satellite location in Los Angeles City Hall. Homeboy chips and salsa are also made and sold at the site, and are available at Ralphs supermarkets.
“We do everything we can to get them involved,” Boyle said. “We are kind of unique. There is not a lot of other stuff [like Homeboy] happening in the county.”
In addition to vocational training, the former gang members who turn to Homeboy can receive counseling, case management, legal assistance and other services. Boyle said there are approximately 175 to 200 former gang members working at the facility at any given time. One of the most sought after services is tattoo removal, which is offered free at the facility. Many of Homeboy’s clients have tattoos on their faces that can impede their ability to get jobs, and having them removed provides new hope for the future, Boyle said.
Homeboy Industries is now considered a national gang intervention model, and has been replicated in major cities across the country. Boyle travels around the United States offering “technical assistance” to similar organizations helping former gang members. He also regularly visits jails and prisons to hold mass and offer a message of hope.
“We have seen a ten-year decline in gang related homicides and crime in general, and I think the chief of police and many other people would tell you we had a part in that, but it’s still out there,” Boyle said. “You still have people released from prison and no one will hire them. It’s a public safety issue. There are an estimated 120,000 gang members in L.A. County. It’s a pretty daunting reality that needs some attention. Basically, if you are engaging gang members in productive activities and gainful employment, it has a huge impact on public safety in the county.”
Boyle said Homeboy’s longevity is one measure of its success, and at 25 years old, he said the organization’s future remains bright. Plans call for a Homegirl Café to open at Los Angeles International Airport in February. The anniversary will kick-off with Homeboy Industries’ “Lo Maximo” gala in April, with other plans still being formulated. Some ideas being considered are a celebratory art show, and an expansion of the Homeboy Industries 5K run/walk, held for the first time last fall.
Boyle added that he hopes to organize some events or activities that will involve the supporters who provide funding for Homeboy and enable the organization to thrive. A majority of the organization’s $14 million annual budget comes from private donations, he said.
“This is our 25th year and we are still growing,” Boyle said. “It’s beyond heartwarming and wonderful to see these young people thriving and investing in themselves.”