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Homeboy Industries Offers Former Gang Members Job Training, a Second Chance

Job training, education, mental-health counseling, legal help and myriad other services are offered in the modern-looking building in L.A. 

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If a Los Angeles gang member decides to seek a new start, he or she can walk through the front door of Homeboy Industries in West Los Angeles and its founder, “Father G,” typically will come out of his office and welcome them with open arms.

The Homeboy Industries website claims it is the “largest gang intervention, rehabilitation and re-entry program in the world.” Whether or not this bold claim is true, the nonprofit organization appears to be making a big difference in the lives of many people who have been in gangs or were recently incarcerated.

Job training, education, mental-health counseling, legal help and myriad other services are offered in the modern-looking building in L.A. It even has a gift shop.

The lobby is constantly loud and full. Multiple public tours take place at any given time, including one for a small group of education reporters and others who took a field trip during the Education Writers Association’s 2018 National Seminar.

Stopping the Revolving Door

The nonprofit was founded in the early 1990s by the Rev. Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest whose Dolores Mission Catholic Church was located between two East L.A. housing projects rife with poverty, drugs and violence. Boyle wanted to give gang members an alternative to the revolving door of what he described as prison and vengeance and drug abuse.

He started a small bakery in the Boyle Heights neighborhood to give them a chance that other employers might not.

Since then, Homeboy, in a new and larger location nearby, offers former gang members jobs in its in-house bakery and the Homegirl Cafe restaurant (the EWA group dug into breakfast there), plus classes to promote academic and personal development, wrap-around social services to help them succeed, and more.

Up to 1,000 former gang members or recently incarcerated individuals seek services at Homeboy Industries each month, according to 2015 estimates on the organization’s website.

Encircling the Homeboy lobby are glass-walled offices for drug counselors who test the trainees, for schedulers of tours and speeches, and for Father G. Another office is stocked with free diapers and wet wipes for trainees and employees who have infants and toddlers at home.

Each trainee in the 18-month program has a “navigator,” which is like a supervisor and mentor. Each participant also is assigned to a case manager who helps the former gang member set goals and work out practical problems, such as finishing up high school or getting a driver’s license.

Tattoo Removal, for Free

A prominent sign in the first-floor hallway points to “Tattoo Removal.” That’s a big part of the program — to remove the vestiges of gang life. That process can be pricey, but it’s free for Homeboy trainees and employees. About 30 doctors volunteer in shifts to remove tattoos using the laser equipment, which also was donated.

Noe Cruz, who is now a licensed baker because of Homeboy, has had more than a dozen treatments. Tattoos that used to cover his face and head are half-gone. Removal hurts about “a thousand times worse” than getting a tattoo, Cruz said.

When asked if he cried while getting his off, he said, “I looked like a blowfish, Mama!”

Upstairs are mental-health counselors, educational services, and a computer lab. The class schedule is packed every weekday: Work Readiness, Anger Management, Computer Basics, Alcoholics Anonymous, Breakthrough Parenting, Career Exploration. They’re all free, except the domestic violence class.

“You put your hands on a woman or a male, you’re going to pay for it — literally — with DV class,” said Joseph Ulloa, another tour guide who has worked at Homeboy for four months.

That Friday, as on all Fridays, Homeboy was holding a “Baby and Me” class for its trainees who are young parents. The mothers bring in their babies and play with them and observe them.

More compelling than the organization’s work were the redemption stories of people who came to Homeboy as trainees and now work there.

Eddie Ruvalcaba, Homeboy’s staff photographer, said he is one class away from earning an associate degree in photography and graphics, after taking his first college classes more than 25 years ago. He has seen a lot of violence in his life, and lost many friends to violence, he said.

‘How Are We Still Alive?’

“A common thread with a lot of homies here is, like, ‘How are we still alive?’ ” Ruvalcaba said. “I don’t know, but there must be a reason, and for me this is my reason,” he said, referring to his work with Homeboy.

Johanna Carbajal, the assistant to the chief executive officer at Homeboy, has the words “F—” and “You” tattooed under each of her eyes. Someone asked what made her choose those words at age 15. “Cuz I didn’t like nobody,” she said automatically.

But now she’s open and smiling and talking about how she aims to earn her bachelor’s degree in political science.

Roughly 700,000 people are released each year from federal and state prisons. Having a criminal record can be a factor in getting denied an admission offer to college and it can affect a student’s eligibility for federal student aid.

But education also is considered a key to curbing recidivism among ex-offenders.

Dorene Macias, a preppy-looking woman with motivational sayings and photos of a teenage boy pinned to her cubicle, is Homeboy’s mental-health administrator.

“I walked through these doors just like everybody else does, fresh out of prison. I just got tired of going to prison,” Macias said. She started out a decade ago as all Homeboy trainees do, cleaning and eventually working in the cafe, where she was sent to culinary school to earn her food manager’s license.

Now she’s three classes away from earning her cognitive behavioral therapy certification, she said.

“You start to do a lot of self-discovery here, and I wanted to understand a lot of the choices I made in life,” Macias said. “There was something wrong with me. I was missing a lot of information. If I’m wrong, teach me; don’t belittle me.”

When the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services took her young son away, now 16, that was when she hit bottom, she said.

“I really didn’t see anything wrong with him believing that we were camping when we were really just living in a tent,” she said. “Had DCFS not taken him, I would’ve been OK dying out in the streets.”

“I believe it was an intervention from God,” she said.

Macias has had 14 gang-related tattoos removed at Homeboy. She said she’s had 32 criminal convictions expunged by working with Homeboy’s legal services.

She eventually wants to work for the same children’s services agency that intervened in her life.