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Hope for the Homeboys

By Ian Lovett, 5/20/2010

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Last year, on Brian Moon’s second day out of prison, his sister asked him where he wanted to go. He told her Homeboy Industries.

Happier Times: At the grand opening of the Homegirl Cafe, hopes were high and smiles abundant. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, hopes donations will increase with economic upturn. (photo by Karen Villalpando)

Happier Times: At the grand opening of the Homegirl Cafe, hopes were high among Lizette Herrera, left, Alfonso Visuet and Dorene Macias. Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, hopes donations will increase with economic upturn. (photo by Karen Villalpando)

“I don’t know why I wanted to go there,” Moon said.

When he arrived, Moon said, they asked how they could help him, and the only thing he could think of was tattoo removal. Though people often wait six months to have tattoos treated, the doctor talked to him while he was filling out paperwork, and asked if he’d just been released from prison.

“We started talking on life issues, and I ended up getting a lot of my tattoos treated that day,” Moon said. “When I went back home, my mom started crying. That was the first time I’d every made her cry because she was happy, and that felt good. I don’t care if you’re a macho gangbanger or whoever you are, that’s your mom. So that’s what drove me back.”

Though he wasn’t sure what he was doing, Moon kept returning every day. Less than a week after he was released from jail, Father Greg Boyle, executive director of Homeboy Industries, hired Moon. At the start, he attended classes. But soon, a coworker asked him to come to a meeting of parolees, where Moon spoke about his experience in and out of jail. Since then, he has spoken at churches; to students from elementary school through medical school; and even at Los Angeles City Hall, where he argued against cutting funding for tattoo removal programs.

Like many of Homeboy Industries’ employees, Moon first became involved with gangs when he was 12 years old, and was in and out of jail after he turned 18.  Mona Hobson, a Miracle Mile resident and Homeboy Industries’ director of development, said Boyle makes those who have just been released from incarceration a priority.

“If people come to us within a very  short period of getting out, chances are they won’t go back,” Hobson said. “So we save society a lot of trouble and money by taking them immediately.  He tries to hire the most vulnerable, like ones with full face tattoos, because people are going to be terrified to even interview them, let alone hire them.”

Now at age 22, more than a year after he first walked in the door, Moon has had eight tattoos treated, including gang signs on his face and his neck, and he serves as a volunteer coordinator at Homeboy Industries’ downtown headquarters. Until last week, Moon worked as a paid employee. But since last Thursday, he has continued to work as an unpaid volunteer.

“I’m still here,” Moon said. “I thought about what else I might do, and it’s easier for me to just leave in some ways. There’s not a better job than this one, but there are better-paying jobs. Homeboy did too much for me to just turn my back on them like that. I’ll stay until the wheels fall off. I’m going to be part of Homeboy no matter what.”

Last Thursday, in the face of higher demand than ever for its gang intervention services and a drop in funding born of the recession, Homeboy Industries laid off more than 300 employees — everyone except the employees of the Homegirl Café, the Homeboy Bakery, the silk screening business, and the retail store. Even Boyle stopped taking a paycheck.

Like Moon, Hobson has continued to work as a volunteer over the last week, reaching out to donors in hopes of stabilizing the organization’s financial situation.

Hobson said that on Tuesday, Homeboy Industries’ board of directors approved a budget of $7 million for the 2010-2011 fiscal year, which will allow the organization to continue to offer all of its programs and services, and to eventually rehire 68 administrative and program staff. The figure is down from the $8.9 million projected earlier in the year. One of the casualties of the reduced budget, however is the job readiness trainee program, which accounts for the vast majority of the employees who were laid off last week.

The job readiness trainee program allows Homeboy Industries to pay people who have just been released from incarceration while they learn job skills and have tattoos removed.

“The job readiness is at the heart of what we do,” Hobson said. “Being able to pay them gives them stability, so they can pay rent, or buy Pampers for their kids. Job training and job preparation is what Homeboy is really about. When we can only pay a handful  of those people,  it begins to cut at the heart of that.”

Hobson worried that without being able to pay job readiness trainees, fewer of them will be able to attend classes, or attend as often. Still, Hobson said she remained optimistic about Homeboy Industries’ future.

“I have every faith that Homeboy is going to be stronger and better than ever,” Hobson said. “We’ve been here 22 years. We’ve hit a rough patch, as everyone has in this economy. We’ve been able to push it out a little longer, because Homeboy has a lot of friends, but I feel very confident in our long-term future. We have a lot of people who have donated, and we just had one donor pledge a million dollars, which is going to be paid out over several years. I like that vote of confidence.”

Homeboy Industries continues to accept donations. To make a donation, or patronize Homeboy businesses, all of which remain open, visit http://www.homeboy-industries.org.

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