Read an exclusive interview with Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention group in the country.
What Homeboy Industries Does:
My name is Greg Boyle, I’m the Executive Director and Founder of Homeboy Industries, located in Los Angeles, the largest gang intervention program in the country. We serve about 12,000 people a year, 8,000 of them are gang member from 800 different gangs from all over L.A. County. They come here looking for one thing, and they probably discover other things on our menu of services. They might come to get tattoos removed. We have two laser machines, 12 doctors, 4,000 treatments a year. We have 4 job-developers trying to find jobs in the private sector. We run 5 businesses, where enemy rival gang members work side by side with each other.
So we’re big. We’ got about 400 employees or trainees, and um, anger management, all sorts of classes, mental health services you name it we do it, legal services, housing services. So that’s who we are, you know, it’s a kind of rehab or recovery place. It’s not for those who need help, it’s for those who want help.
You know, Scripture scholars always say that throughout history and Scripture that the principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It’s not their inability to feed their families or buy Pampers. It’s shame and disgrace. And so you have to reach in and dismantle those messages of shame and disgrace and replace them with the truth. And the truth is good. It’s always good.
And so they have to redefine themselves. What happens here at Homeboy Industries, which is a therapeutic community really (is that) people get held. So they come in here and they rediscover the first attachment that was denied them when they were infants really. And so it’s delayed. And they discover that secure base, is what psychologists will call it. And they start to feel soothed, and comforted, and ready, and resilient.
Then they can move out into the world and face whatever the world is going to hand them. So um this place kind of offers that. Alot of them come from a place of insecure, an insecure base, or problems of attachments. And that’s almost always what’s happened with them.
That’s why it’s not just a job here. We can locate jobs for folks. But when they come here they get the full package, which is loving, caring adults, who pay attention. It’s unconditional. There’s a “no matter whatness” to it, so no matter what you do we’re going to be in your corner.
And then they’re part of this family, and then it gives you what you need to kind of move on. And then you re-identify, you start to say “oh, that’s what a man looks like… that’s what courage looks like… that’s what a father ought to be.” They kind of don’t know that because they don’t have uh road signs, you know.
Prevention is key to preventing violence, we need “all hands on deck.”
Gangs a symptom, hopeful kids don’t join gangs, we need to offer an exit ramp from this gang fwy:
A lot of times people rarify this thing and they absent themselves, or say there’s nothing they can do to contribute positively to this issue. Well, all hands on deck — I think everybody needs to help as best they can. It’s an enormously complex social dilemma, so we need to be reverent of its complexity. And many things need to happen. Everything from mentoring to after-school programs, to keeping schools open, to offering an exit ramp from this craziness of this gang freeway. You want to allow them to get off, and to, to exit a previous kind of life.
You know, everybody acknowledges now that you do prevention, intervention and suppression. And you have to do all three um, but you want to do them with equal vigor and equal allocation of resources. We’re not there yet. Especially in intervention, as I understand it to mean.
If prevention is say under 14 kids who aren’t in gangs, how to you want to keep it that way. So you do all the things that you do, from mentoring and helping kids. But intervention is 14 and up, kids who have regrettably found their way into a gang. Now what do you do and how do you help them?
And they’re a tougher sell because society is into demonizing sometimes, and so it’s hard for them to see that these young men and women belong to us. But they do. And that’s, demonizing is always untruth. So we belong to each other, there is no us and them, there’s just us.
And so these are the kinds of things that have to happen first. Nobody, not even cops, say we can arrest our way out of this issue. In fact they always say the opposite. And then they proceed to (try to) arrest their way out of this issue.
Then they proceed to do everything that’s required. And so, you know, law enforcement will do intervention, law enforcement will do prevention, and I think that’s a bad thing frankly. I think law enforcement shouldn’t do what the community can, because you want to engage more and more stakeholders, not fewer. You know, you want churches and schools and psychologists and therapists and people who can just mentor. You want them to show up.
Society is not telling law enforcement, “please solve this problem, let us know when it’s solved.” They (law enforcement) have one small piece. And then prison, you know, as a deterrent. Gosh, it’s not much of a help, although we’ve added rehabilitation to the title now. But we prepare prisoners for nothing. Nothing awaits them when they return to the community, we’ve lost our right to be surprised that California has the highest recidivism rate in the country. So we need to rethink this. But programs and education and training are the very first things that’re cut when they need to cut prison budgets. So that’s where we are, regrettably.
So it’s crazy. It’s costly in human lives, it’s costly in resources and money that we don’t have. And so you’d be far better off, in supporting, say, Homeboy Industries, because it’s not for nothing in Los Angeles County the gang-related homicide rates have been cut in half and then half again, since 1992. And that’s as long as we’ve been around, and lots of programs, like ____, Communities and Schools, A Place Called Home, ___, and L.A. Conservation Corps — these are all, the people decided to do comprehensive services. And it’s worked and there’s proof. Nobody would ever suggest that law enforcement is the reason, because, nor could you suggest that we’re the solitary reason. We’re part of the reason why gang-related homicides have been cut in half and then some.
So all hands on deck, everybody needs to be involved, we belong to each other, and we all need to seek together to create a community of kinship such that God might recognize it.
What drives a person to join a gang? “Kids are never seeking (when they join a gang) they are always fleeing.”
So gang violence is not a problem it’s a symptom, it points beyond itself to all sorts of things that we need to address, from poverty to despair to racism. So nobody’s ever met a hopeful kid who joined a gang. Because hopeful kids don’t join gangs. So if you know that, then you’re going to try to infuse kids with hope and try to identify kids for whom hope is foreign. No kid is ever seeking anything when they join a gang. People always think that, that’s sort of the outsider’s view. Kids are always fleeing something, and so that’s what you want to address.
What are they fleeing? I can remember once being at a high school packed gym with kids, and I had a Homie with me who started to tell his story. And I knew parts of his story. He was about 27 years old, had been in prison, gang member. And he starts to talk and all of a sudden he stops, and he says, “I think I was 7, I was playing with matches, and my Mom caught me and she dragged me into the kitchen, and she turned on that electric coil on top of the stove. And she put my hand down on the coil and she held it there for a really long time.”
Well, when he says this, the whole high school gym audience gasped. And then he said, “All I remember is waking up in the middle of the night and my hand was in the toilet water trying to seek relief because my hand was all pus-y and red. And severely burned.” Then the gasp again. And then he looks out at them and he said, “That’s why I joined the gang.”
And I thought it was brilliant, I thought here he had come to a sense of his connection, that nobody joins a gang, you know, “join a gang and see the world.” I don’t care what they tell you. They may tell you, “Wow, that’s what I wanted to be, they had the fast cars and the money and the women.” Don’t believe it for a second. I don’t care if a gang member is saying that. Every gang member is fleeing something and that’s why they gravitate in that direction.
There is no pull factor, there’s nothing that draws, attracts. There’s only push factors, whatever pushes this kid into that environment.
Father Boyle addresses the factors that contribute to a kid leading a life of violence, “A kid who is in pain is going to inflict pain.”
Well, I think, you know, again, a kid who is in pain is going to inflict pain, so you have to look, and I try to identify the kids who are hopeless, despondent, unable to imagine a future for themselves. If a kid can’t imagine a future then their present isn’t compelling. And if their present doesn’t compel them, they won’t care whether they inflict harm, and they won’t care whether they duck to get out of harm’s way, that’s how it works. So you can’t scare any kid straight, because if a kid has stopped caring, it won’t work. You can care a kid straight, through care and loving attention you can get them to a place where they start to recognize the truth of who they are. That they’re exactly what God had in mind when God made them.
And then you watch them as they become that truth, as they inhabit that truth and that’s the most powerful thing in the world.