Father Greg Boyle in prayer after announcing layoffs at Homeboy Industries, May 14, 2010.
For 20 years, Homeboy Industries has given East L.A. gang members a chance to get out of trouble. Now the acclaimed anti-gang program is in trouble itself. It hasn’t been able to raise the money it needs to keep 300 or so ex-gang-bangers employed and off the streets. Father Greg Boyle, the Jesuit priest who founded Homeboy announced to his staff that everyone’s been laid off.
There’s a meeting every morning at the Homeboy Industries building near L.A.’s Union Station. Father Greg Boyle tried to start this one with humor.
"What are you doing here, you’re not getting paid?" Boyle asked. There was some laughter.
A woman from the crowd in the lobby said, "It don’t matter."
"Yeah, I know," Boyle replied. Then he couldn't resist hearing the list of activities lined up at Homeboy Industries for the day.Solar panel testing, baby-and-me class, healing circle. Just a sample of what the program Boyle founded 20 years ago offers to former gang members: substance abuse therapy, job skills, and in many cases — a job. But the Jesuit priest knew his task was to explain that Homeboy no longer has the money to pay 300 employees.
"But our doors are not locking," he reassured them. "And the businesses are continuing, and the services of tattoo removal, mental health, and job development will continue. And the hope is that help is on the way so that we can actually pay them for that. "
Boyle began calling for help six months ago, and small contributions came in, but nowhere near the $5 million Homeboy needed. Manuel Melendrez, 33, helps teach anger management and supervises Homeboy’s janitorial staff for minimum wage. Now, he’ll be doing it as a volunteer.
"They could raise millions of dollars for the Hollywood sign and for dog pounds, to put dogs asleep yet they’re willing to just let 400 gang members just go back out on the street," said Melendrez. He grew up in El Monte and has been in and out of gangs, juvenile hall and jail since he was 13. He showed up at Homeboy two years ago after serving a prison sentence for carrying a knife in county jail. He's been off drugs since.
"A lot of us depend on this to feed our kids and put food on our table, pay our bills, car insurance. This is the first job I ever had."
Father Greg Boyle said he isn’t just worried about Melendrez and his staff, or the 12,000 gang members who pass through Homeboy's operations every year.
"This place represents hope to those who aren’t ready to walk through our doors," he explained. "That is significant. Imagine heroine addicts who know that there is no rehab for them, even if they’re not ready to take that step. That is devastating. "
The same goes for gang members, Boyle said. The Homeboy Bakery, the Homegirl Café and catering business, the Homeboy Press and the Silkscreen and Embroidery business will remain open. Boyle said they are thriving money makers. … and a sign to any major donor that a bet on Homeboy Industries is a safe one.