Sunday, May 16, 2010

Homeboy Industries

I know this is a local story and probably won't mean much to most people outside the Los Angeles area, but it should. It's about a highly successful gang intervention program that provides services to 12,000 young men and women a year as they try to move away from their gang membership. It's about giving those young people hope by giving them a job. It's about a Roman Catholic priest, Father Gregory Boyle, who believes that these kids just need a break and some guidance to become productive and useful members of their community and who designed a program 18 years ago to do just that.

His plan was simple: put the kids to work in their own company. With the help of the business community, Father Gregory started up a couple of now very successful businesses. Homeboy Bakery (which makes some damned fine bread), Homegirl Cafe (which is located in the Homeboy Center near downtown (and which has a shot at opening a second site at LAX), and Homeboy Graphics (which is a silk screening operation).

Unfortunately, right now, Father Gregory's program is having the same financial problems that other charities are having as donations drop with the economy.

Here's what Tim Rutten had to say about Homeboy's problems:

Homeboy, which occupies a strikingly vibrant headquarters near Union Station, operates successful cafe, bakery and silk-screening businesses. It also provides job training, work, counseling, educational programs, legal assistance and tattoo removal to 12,000 young men and women formerly involved in gangs from all over Los Angeles County. It is what every social service organization purports, or aspires, to be: an effective program with a soul.

However, as the demands for its services have risen, Homeboy has been pinched by the general drop in charitable contributions that have followed from the grim economy. Since last fall, when the organization's problems surfaced, Boyle and his staff have been relying on a stream of small donations to cobble together their payroll. On Thursday, they had to lay off 330 of the 427 people they employed. Boyle and his staff will continue to work without pay, and the profitable cafe, bakery and silk-screen businesses will go on as usual.

Essentially, Homeboy needs $5 million in what amounts to bridge funding to carry it through until, as planned, the growing revenues from those successful businesses can support the rest of the program. This is an organization that has saved thousands of lives and demonstrably contributed not only to the lives of the young people it serves but also to our collective public safety. That's why Boyle and his work are supported strongly by both Police Chief Charlie Beck and Sheriff Lee Baca. What, moreover, is $5 million in a city that spends $25 million annually on gang intervention programs of dubious efficacy? What is it in a city with eight billionaires and millionaires by the thousands?

$5 million seems like a lot of money, but as Mr. Rutten points out, the City of Los Angeles pays out five times that amount each year in gang intervention programs, most of which don't work. Recently, a huge amount of money was raised by wealthy donors to keep the Museum of Modern Art afloat. The same thing happened when it looked like the landmark Hollywood sign was going to be torn down. Surely the lives of these young people are just as valuable as those things.

Tim Rutten certainly thinks so, because he decided to make a phone call to former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a very wealthy man. Mr. Riordan, who made his fortune as a venture capitalist, enthusiastically took the call and promised to corral some of his friends to help make up the Homeboy shortfall. If he's successful, then the program will continue to operate and to grow. These kids will make it, and Los Angeles will be the better for it.

And that just might take the edge off my cynicism when it comes to the wealthy because it will mean that they finally realize that they too have to be good citizens, that they too should use a portion of their wealth to help their communities and their fellow citizens to grow and to prosper.

By the way, Tim Rutten: I usually object to a journalist, even a columnist, inserting himself into the news instead of just reporting it. Not this time. This time I am grateful for the practical display of humanity you showed.

Good on you.



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