Priest's anti-gang program in budget crisis

The Rev. Greg Boyle has walked through gunfire to quell gang violence, gotten sworn enemies to work peacefully together and redeemed hardcore criminals. But he never thought money would be the downfall of the nation's largest anti-gang program.

After Friday, however, all bets are off at Homeboy Industries. The Roman Catholic priest's 21-year-old effort to rehabilitate gang members by offering jobs, counseling and schooling, will run out of cash - the result of an economic recession that has ripped a $5 million hole in the nonprofit's budget this year.

"It's safe to say I'm losing sleep over this," said the snowy-bearded Jesuit who won international acclaim and was chronicled in a book and documentary film. "I have 400 employees counting on me and 12,000 more who walk through our doors every year."

In a modern building in Boyle Heights just east of downtown Los Angeles, Boyle provides help and hope in a one-stop-shop for getting lives back together.

Under his slogan "nothing stops a bullet like a job," he hires reformed gang members in a bakery, silk screening shop, and cafe he founded to employ and train youths who crave a second chance but who are shunned by traditional employers.

He also provides classes to equip young adults for life such as driver's education, parenting classes and high school equivalency and to help them deal with their violent pasts underscored by criminal records, drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.

For many former gang members, Homeboy Industries is like walking into a home they never had.

Rosa Crespin said she desperately wanted to change her life after serving two years in juvenile lockup for stealing cars and assault and after having a baby in May. She applied fruitlessly for about 200 jobs, until she entered Homeboy and was hired to do clerical work.

"People will always judge you by what you were," said the 18-year-old whose arms and fingers are dotted with tattoos - the symbols of gang affiliation. "Here, people understand where you're coming from. It gives you a shoulder to lean on that you can do it. People walk out changed."

Boyle's combination of compassion, practical skills and rules - employees are subject to random drug tests - has made his program a model for gang intervention across the country and abroad.

Homeboy is one of few agencies that have proven success with a population traditionally difficult to reach, said Beatriz Solis, director of healthy communities for The California Endowment, which recently gave Homeboy $500,000 for mental health programs and has donated to the nonprofit since 1999.

But this year Homeboy started to run into financial trouble - contributions from foundations and corporations dried up, government contracts were slashed in half, and state budget woes made collecting bills for past contracts impossible, including a $310,000 tab owed by the Division of Juvenile Justice for mentoring young parolees, said Mona Hobson, director of development.

The nonprofit, which carries a top, four-star ranking from nonprofit analyst Charity Navigator, has lost about 40 percent of its $9 million annual budget.

Boyle, who is fighting leukemia, has managed to push Homeboy from payroll to payroll the last few months - $350,000 every two weeks for salaries and bills. He's gathered $200,000 through Web site donations, put Homeboy merchandise online to ramp up sales, frozen new hiring and extended cafe hours to serve dinner on weekends.

Hobson has reached out to foundations and corporations she hasn't tapped before and that's resulted in a trickle of contributions.

But Homeboy is now hitting a dead end.

Still, the priest, who earns $52,000 a year, refuses to charge for services like tattoo removal, which signals a gang member's renunciation of his lifestyle, because he believes they won't come if they have to pay.

Boyle said he's looking at shutting down the nonprofit's services, which include psychological counseling, legal aid and self-empowerment classes, and continuing to run the businesses as long as they generate enough revenue to cover operations.

Although only the silk screening shop turns a small profit, business revenue this year is expected to reach $2.2 million, up 50 percent from last year. Homegirl Cafe recently scored contracts with Ralph's and Whole Foods supermarkets to distribute its chipotle hummus, cilantro pesto and mango salsa while the bakery churns out bread and rolls for the county's Meals on Wheels program and baked goods for the University of Southern California.

"We long for the day when our revenue pays for our services, but we're not there yet," said Boyle, who affectionately calls homeboys "son" and homegirls "kiddo."

City Hall has been trying to help, said Jeff Carr, director of the mayor's anti-gang office.

Carr is turning over the $500,000 remainder of a federal gang-prevention grant to Homeboy and this summer gave the organization's silk screening shop a $250,000 order for T-shirts and jerseys. He even took 25 staffers to a going-away lunch at Homegirl Cafe.

Former gang members say they despair at the thought of Homeboy closing.

Ten-year gang veteran Anthony Vieyra, who got a job at Homeboy as a receptionist after serving a year in jail for making terrorist threats, predicted many would go back to street life without Father Greg, as Boyle is called.

"People would sell drugs, any way to get money. It would be ugly," said the 25-year-old, who now eschews the gang member look of a shaved head and baggy pants by growing his hair long and wearing fitted jeans.

Losing kids to gangs is Boyle's biggest fear if Homeboy shuts down.

"On some level, we release the steam on the gang violence," he said. "I can't imagine the city without Homeboy."

© 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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