BY: TYLER FYFE
Father Greg Boyle has buried 183 kids in 26 years living in his neighbourhood. But this tragedy is twofold—each one of these kids was killed by another kid. In the 1980s Boyle, a Jesuit priest, began walking through the dilapidated neighbourhoods of East LA, talking to those who lingered beneath street lamps and were magnetic to LAPD stop and search programs. Those who found their lives playing out in six city blocks or in 6 by 8 foot cells or else in the waiting room (or the operating table) of hospital trauma centres. What he found was that often original stories become obscured beneath face tattoos. What he realized was that “a person’s ability to choose is not created equal.”
In 1992, at the peak of LA’s gang wars, Father Boyle created Homeboy Industries, currently the largest gang intervention program in the United States. At that time as many as 2,000 people were dying on LA concrete annually according to The Los Angeles Times.
Homeboy Industries offers convicts and gang members something that all criminals find hard to come by—legitimate opportunity. For 26 years they have been turning lives around by offering gang-members a full-time job.
“Refuse to demonize a single gang member, and refuse to romanticize a single gang” says Father Boyle. Seventy-five per cent of youth gang murders in California occur inside Los Angeles County—also home to thirty-four per cent of the state’s poor people. In order to break the vicious circle, Boyle says community development, rather than mass incarceration, is the key to crime reduction. His premise is simple, the “get tough on crime” approach seeks to achieve peace through justice, while simultaneously ignoring the social and economic injustices that incubate crime to certain communities.
The social enterprise began with a bakery, but has since grown to a cafe, a food truck, a catering service, a diner, and a silk and embroidery business.
In her book, “On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City,” sociologist Alice Goffman embedded in the world of part-time crack dealers and a brutal Pennsylvania gang-war between 6th Street and the 4th Street Boys. Goffman became close friends with a boy named Chuck, a senior high school student living in the basement of a rat-infested house in the projects. Chuck’s mother had a crippling crack habit. At 13-years-old, Chuck began dealing crack. He figured that if he was her supplier, he could help control her habit, help with the grocery bills and stop his mother from turning to dark deeds to support her worsening habit. Chuck later died after being gunned down by a rival gang on the curb outside of a Chinese restaurant. Chuck did bad things. But Chuck was not a bad person.
Currently, the United States has more prisons than colleges, with 2.3 million people in federal and state prisons—the largest percentage of incarceration on earth. This means one in every 100 American adults are in prison or jail, equivalent to placing every resident of Houston, Texas behind bars. Within three years, 67.8 per cent of released American prisoners will be re-arrested. In five years, that number rises to 76.6 per cent.
Father Boyle says “Community trumps gangs every time.”
Father Boyle aims for Homeboy Industries to be the “tipping point” for the acceptance and application of alternative approaches to crime reduction by putting the precedence on community involvement and rehabilitation, rather than segregation. Boyle embraces neighbourhood slang as his own, addressing his staff as “dawg,” “mijo” and “homie.” Every person who walks into his office is given his cell phone number and he commonly presides over employees’ weddings and baptizes their children.
Homeboy Industries offers free removal of tattoos that can prevent ex-gang members from pursuing lives outside of crime.
According to Steve Soboroff, Vice President of the Los Angeles Board of Police Commissioners, the last 12 years of declining crime rates are largely the result of gang intervention. The community development initiative of Homeboy Industries makes as much economic sense as it does sociological sense. A single prisoner costs $46,700 per year. Probation costs $3.42 per day.
120,000 gang members have come to Father Boyle for help turning their lives around.
He has been fighting to save the lives of others, despite battling leukaemia for the last decade.
In addition to employing 200 men and women, Homeboy Industries offers free counselling for trauma and anger management, as well as parenting classes to 600 others.
At the end of the 18-month program of work and therapy, the majority of felons have stayed out of prison, rebuilt family ties and found full- or part-time work.
Father Boyle tells Fast Company, “Everyone is a lot more than the worst thing they ever did. This place is about redemption and restoration.”
In a FastCompany article, Father Boyle is quoted as saying “I suspect if we were a shelter for abandoned puppies we’d be endowed by now. But we’re a place of second chances for gang members and felons. It’s a tough sell, but a good bet.” Homeboy Industries only receives 2 percent of funding from the government. You can support their innovative initiative by donating here.