The First Chance They Never Got

In the central phone bank "well" at Homeboy Industries' main office in Boyle Heights, East Los Angeles, former gang members Gerardo Gomez and Carlos Reza joke easily over a plate of tamales from a sidewalk cart. But when the phone rings, Gomez turns seriously to the business at hand. On the other end of the line might be a convicted gang member calling from jail, a young person on the street asking for guidance, an ex-gang-banger looking for help getting his or her tattoos removed, or a query about one of the numerous services Homeboy provides, services which give ex-gang members and disadvantaged young men and women from the community a first chance at employment and a life removed from gangs. The motto "Jobs Not Jails" describes the Homeboy philosophy, rooted in providing employment for disadvantaged young men and women and helping them find the stability to put the gang lifestyle behind them.

Founded by Jesuit priest Father Greg Boyle in 1992 as a way for gang members to step away from their criminal ties, Homeboy Industries is a highly visible part of the Boyle Heights landscape. The spotless headquarters on 1st Street houses the "Ya 'Stuvo" ("I'm done with that") tattoo removal program, counseling and employment services for anyone willing to walk in the door, programs to assist young people recently released from prison, as well as general life skills classes geared towards helping the organization's clients secure a place for themselves in a world that can sometimes be eager to overlook them. More importantly, the busy office appears to be a place of valuable community to the many young people who show up for work every day to take another step in a better direction. Some are only recently released from prison; others grew up in the neighborhood and saw Homeboy Industries as a beacon of hope to a life scarred by gang violence.

Beyond its main office walls, Homeboy Industries runs several businesses, which employ clients and teach valuable job skills. A busy screen-print shop and a maintenance and street-cleaning program count among their employees members of rival gangs who have learned to work alongside each other. The first Homeboy Industries business fully staffed by women, the Homegirl Cafe proudly celebrated its grand opening on April 14, 2005, overlooking the bandstand of the Mariachi Plaza de Los Angeles at the intersection of Boyle and 1st Streets. And after being destroyed in a 1999 fire, the Homeboy Bakery is coming to life again, with a new building in the works, to be built at the edge of downtown's Chinatown district by Union Station, and a team of six Homeboy clients currently in their third week of a year-long baking and pastry training program at Los Angeles Trade and Technical College.

Tragic circumstances curtailed the activities of a formerly busy graffiti removal team, as on separate occasions two employees were fatally shot while on the job, each within less than two months of the other, in the summer of 2004. Graffiti removal operations have been suspended indefinitely in the wake of these losses.

The First Chance They Never Got