L.A.’s Homeboy Industries Shows Signs Of Recovery
Eddie Gomez has his former life written all over him in tattoos that cover his body, face and head.
He boasts the kind of record most employees have here at Homeboy Industries. A criminal one.
But Homeboy Industries, a non-profit rehabilitation community devoted to helping former gang members and the recently imprisoned learn job skills and life tools for reentering the workforce and society, is changing things for Gomez, a convicted felon and former gang member.
It’s a community for the 12,000 people Homeboy staffers say walk through the nonprofit’s doors each year — a safe haven where former members of rival gangs become brothers and sisters.
“I’m trying to be a member of the community,” he said of growing his hair out to cover his tattoos. “If I had a chance to take them all off right now I would.”
And while the wish to “take it all back” can be common, many employees appear grateful for the events that led them to Father Greg Boyle, who started a Jobs For A Future program in 1988, which officially grew into Homeboy Industries in 2001.
Boyle, affectionately known as “G,” is somewhat of a legend in Los Angeles. Many employees have a personal connection to the priest, some dating back years to when they were children growing up in rough neighborhoods. Boyle has a knack for looking out for those who might get themselves into trouble.
In his new memoir, “Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion,” Boyle writes, “Los Angeles claims 1,100 gangs with nearly 86,000 members. A great number of these youth know to come to Homeboy when they are ready to ‘hang up their gloves.’ Homeboy Industries is not for those who need help, only for those who want it.”
One of Boyle’s success stories was Irvin “Smiley” Panameno, a 19-year-old who joined a gang at 13. Panameno, a “favorite” at Homeboy, was known as one of the first to arrive at work in the morning and nearly the last to leave at night.
On Sept. 9, Panameno was shot three times on his way to work. Even after surgery, Panameno’s brain function was too weak to sustain life.
The Homeboy community has been reeling ever since. In the morning meeting following Panameno’s death, the staff and friends of Homeboy, many of whom wept throughout the tribute, remembered his energy and spirit.
The overwhelming emotion demonstrates the strong hold Homeboy has on so many of its workers, who not only see the organization as their second chance at life but also as an extension of their family.
And now more than ever, Boyle needs his employees to foster Homeboy’s feeling of community and generosity in difficult times.
Recent financial woes put pressure on Homeboy to make drastic changes. In May, 330 of Homeboy’s 427 staffers were laid off.
As word spread, rumors of Homeboy shutting its doors swirled and things went quiet.
Norma Robles Gillette, case manager for Homeboy, said the mood following the layoffs was “very subdued” and the once-crowded lobby was virtually empty.
“We were having to correct a misimpression that was out there that we were closing our doors,” she said.
The organization’s four businesses, which include a café, bakery, merchandise and silkscreen business, have been self-sustaining and were unaffected by the layoffs, she said.
But four months later, “Black Thursday,” as some of the staffers refer to the day of the layoffs, seems like a distant memory. The worst appears to be over, Gillette said.
Homeboy received a $100,000 grant from Chevron in August followed by a $50,000 grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco’s Access to Housing and Economic Assistance for Development program to teach solar panel installation.
Homeboy currently receives no money from the city, though it has in the past through grant funds and merchandise sales. On Sept. 14, the L.A. County Board of Supervisors approved $1.3 million of support for Homeboy’s service programs geared toward county-referred probationers. The 9-month contract will allow Homeboy to offer services to 665 people in addition to hiring 20 job trainees.
At the meeting, Boyle said donations since May have totaled $3.5 million. Hobson clarified that $2.9 million has been received in cash donations since mid-May and $1.5 million in pledges that are expected to be paid by Dec. 31, 2010.
The organization reports a 70 percent retention rate, but employees say it’s not about percentages.
“We’re all focused on the numbers,” Hobson said, “but it’s our mission that’s more important.”
And the hope at Homeboy remains alive. Even at the lowest of lows, the employees had faith.
“People are devoted to this place,” Hobson said. “We knew it wasn’t going anywhere.”
The Future Of Homeboy
A visit to the Homeboy Industries’ headquarters on West Bruno Street, on the northern edge of Downtown, reveals the reality of the revolution Boyle has set in place. The openness of the community, the equality and the aura of genuine kindness and warmth all contribute to it success.
The mood at Homeboy is upbeat on a recent Friday afternoon. Staffers roam the ground floor of the building smiling, joking with one another and offering hugs and handshakes. Most are wearing Homeboy Industries clothing — shirts that say “Jobs Not Jails” or “Nothing Stops A Bullet Like A Job.”
Homegirl Café, one of Homeboy’s four businesses, is buzzing at lunch hour, with some people sitting in booths and others lined up to order baked goods at the counter.
Most of the seats in the building’s lobby are full of ex-gang members and others seeking job counseling or tattoo removal. Homeboy offers other services too, including classes on substance abuse and parenting, as well as G.E.D. tutoring.
“We call this a therapeutic community,” Gillette said. “We treat gang affiliation as any other kind of addiction like drugs because they do get addicted to it.”
But what appears lively and crowded to an outsider is apparently slow for what the employees are used to in recent weeks. After all, Boyle had already left for the day. The priest, who had been in that morning, brought in his usual crowd of workers and visitors, many of whom regularly check his schedule to see when he’ll be in.
“It takes Father Greg a little while to get to his desk with everyone coming up, hugging him,” said Agustin “Tin Tin” Lizama, a senior navigator and domestic violence counselor at Homeboy.
And it’s that spirit and loyalty that appears to have kept Homeboy alive since “Black Thursday.”
Lizama, who was in and out of prison from 1997 to 2004, said Boyle reminded him there was a place — and a job — for him at Homeboy.
But when he finally decided to change his life, Boyle made him work for it. Lizama recalled coming in every day for nearly a month asking Boyle when a job would open up.
Boyle hired him shortly after Lizama proved he was committed to showing up every day, waiting for a job and altering his life. And the 31-year-old said he’s now a changed man — with a brand new family.
“I wake up at 6 in the morning every day eager just to come,” he said. “Just to be around everybody and work with great people.”
And for the first time, he said, he has genuine love and affection surrounding him.
“The best part about Homeboy is the unconditional love,” he said. “Not being judged. The look that you get that you really mean something to this world … It was something new for me, it was something I never had in my life before.”
Though the layoffs changed the organization’s mood significantly, they did not come as a complete surprise. Homeboy had been struggling for some time.
According to a chart showing Homeboy’s 2009 finances, 46 percent of Homeboy’s funding comes from foundations with Homeboy businesses and miscellaneous income like the sales of Boyle’s memoir coming in at 29 percent.
“We limped along for many, many months, payroll to payroll,” Gillette said. “Most of us were hopeful that it wasn’t going to be too long before some angel came forward and plunked down a few million dollar checks. But that didn’t happen. It was just a lot of smaller checks….We never did get that millionaire donation like the Hollywood sign did and like MOCA did.”
The message of Homeboy’s work resonates beyond the L.A. offices, and Boyle’s recent book tour has made the Homeboy cause a national one. Boyle was recently featured on NPR and in the National Enquirer’s “Acts of Kindness” section, bringing in donations from around the country.
“If anything, the community has increased,” Gillette said. “The blow of the layoff was enough to wake us all up. Sometimes you don’t know what you’ve got until you lost it.”
And Homeboy’s most valuable lesson may be about acceptance.
“I’ve changed in so many ways—in the way I think, the way I love, the way I see the world now,” Lizama said. “Before I used to divide everybody in my own little world—different races, different this. The world isn’t about that to me. A human being is a human being. There’s only one race—the human race.”
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