Long-Running Gang-Intervention Program Squeezed By Budget
ARUN RATH, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.
Here's a brilliant idea to stop gang violence: Just get the rival gang members together in a nice kitchen and have them bake bread. Are you laughing? Well, stop, because it really works.
When Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, started Homeboy Industries 26 years ago, it was a small bakery in a gang-torn neighborhood in downtown L.A. That bakery led to a catering service and a café. It looks as nice as any Starbucks.
Homeboy Industries is swarming with activity today. Upstairs, there's a GED class; downstairs, gang tattoo removal. There are counseling services and classrooms where former gang members are learning how to do a job interview.
Father Greg or Father G, as he's called around here, works with 15,000 former gang members a year. His success rate is astounding. Seventy percent of people who walk through these doors don't return to prison.
GREG BOYLE: There are about 120,000 gang members in L.A. County, so I would suspect that all of them know about this place. And this is the exit ramp off of that crazy violent freeway. So they can imagine - the gang members can imagine the possibility of redirecting their lives.
RATH: Well, this - to describe for people, this office is just lined with photos - a lot of before and after photos that are quite dramatic of people...
BOYLE: Well, everything here, they're all gifts, you know? Some of them are kids I've buried. I've buried 193 young people who I've known. And so there are pictures of them. But there are a lot of, you know, kids at their baptism, you know, and, you know, a variety of things.
RATH: And can you talk about the background of these young people, because people have an idea, well, these are gang members or former gang members, but more of who they are, what kind of families or what kind of backgrounds they're coming from.
BOYLE: Well, the profile of any kid who joins a gang is somebody who's stuck in a despair that they can't really see their way out of that and they can't imagine tomorrow. And then the other profile is the kid who's so traumatized and damaged that he or she can't see their way clear to transform their pain so they keep transmitting it. And the third profile is the mentally ill kid. Around here, we always ask - invite people to stand in awe at what folks have to carry rather than stand in judgment at how they've carried it.
RATH: With over 200 trainees, volunteers and part-time employees, paying for an operation this big is a constant challenge. Government funding was once 20 percent of the organization's annual $14 million budget. Funding cuts have reduced that to just 3 percent.
It looks like in 2014 we've, you know, have lost essentially a million dollars from the government. Our argument, of course, is we serve this entire county. There isn't a zip code that has gangs that hasn't seen a member from those gangs walk through our doors. If they're here, they're not in jail. And if they're here, they're not in state prisons. And we're helping to turn around the recidivism rate in a way that's really significant.
I know one of the services that you offer is tattoo removal. In fact, the gentleman who was signed in - right ahead of us was here for a tattoo removal. If you can explain what that means for these young people.
BOYLE: Yeah. We have a designated clinic here. We have 30 volunteer doctors, one paid physician's assistant and 46,000 laser treatments a year. So there's no place on the planet Earth that removes more tattoos than we do.
RATH: These are - I want to be specific - these are the gang tattoos.
BOYLE: The gang-related tattoos on their face and neck and elbows down. Any mistake we've ever made, we can't erase. But this is one you can.
GARAY BASTIDA: This - I had to take away - it takes - it's a lot of process. I'm on the process of taking my tattoos away. And it hurts bad.
RATH: It does?
RATH: Really? That laser?
BASTIDA: Laser, yes. Excruciating.
RATH: Meet 23-year-old Garay Bastida(ph) from east L.A.
BASTIDA: Always had in mind to come here, but I just didn't have the courage to come. So when I got out this time, like, three months ago, I was - I just got a little tired of going to jail. And I felt I needed to work on myself. So I came here, and I'm doing good. Instead of being in the streets like selling drugs or gang banging, I'm in here.
RATH: So what has this meant for you, like, work like this, like honest work?
BASTIDA: It's giving me experience to get ready for a job out there. I want to be a better father. I want to make my dad happy. Father G saved my life. I love Father G.
BOYLE: We're kind of a tough sell, but we're a good bet. There's a still a lingering sense of demonizing, I suppose. It's not a shelter for abandoned puppies. It's a center of second chances for felons and gang members. And so this is smart. What if we were to invest in folks rather than futily and endlessly try to incarcerate our way out of this problem, which doesn't make any sense.
RATH: Father Greg Boyle. He's the founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention program in the nation.