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Jobs, not Jails

By Jack Feuer

Published Apr 1, 2009 10:00 AM

Father Greg Boyle helps gang members turn their lives around.

As Homeboy Industries continues to grow, its founder, Father Greg Boyle, still has time to chat on a one-on-one basis.

Visit the Homeboys

"It's a light day," says UCLA Department of Social Welfare Adjunct Associate Professor Jorja Leap '78, M.S.W. '80, Ph.D. '88 in the reception area of Homeboy Industries' light-drenched, airy downtown Los Angeles headquarters. Leap, an internationally recognized researcher and scholar who has worked with Homeboy for years and is also a policy adviser on gangs for Los Angeles County Sheriff Lee Baca, says this without a hint of irony, even as dozens of young, tattooed men and women in shirts bearing the Homeboy logo rush by so fast they're almost blurs, racing back and forth and up and down the two-story office building.

They clean windows, give tours and generally keep the place — which also houses the Homeboy Bakery, the Homegirl Café (and catering) and a gift shop where they sell T-shirts that read "Jobs Not Jails" — humming like a well-tuned engine. And offsite, there's also a Homeboy silkscreen business, a solar panel training program and other enterprises.

Meanwhile, a steady stream of people walks in and sits down on the chairs next to the reception desk and waits patiently for an audience with Homeboy's beloved founder, Father Greg Boyle. Perhaps they need help getting out of a gang. Or a job. Maybe they need a gang tattoo removed — Homeboy removes as many as 500 a month. Or mental health counseling. Legal services. Twelve-step meetings. Whatever it takes, "Father G" and his peripatetic team will help every one of them, if they can.

Hear from Jorja

So it goes daily at the most famous gang intervention and reentry program in America. Father Greg has attended the funerals of 164 kids since he began this remarkable mission in 1988 — he knows the exact number — but he's helped thousands more. In fact, Homeboy Industries is the best kind of urban legend, drawing young people from over half the region's 1,100 known gangs.

There's a mountain of anecdotal evidence to indicate that Homeboy works, including a case study that Leap is currently working on. In fact, Boyle jokes, when he goes to board meetings to seek funding, "I tell them, 'Don't take my word for it. Take Jorja's.'"

But there has been no academic inquiry into Homeboy Industries, no studies, no research at all — until now. Leap and Todd Franke, UCLA associate professor of social welfare and also a sought-after consultant on social welfare issues, are conducting the first-ever scientific study of Homeboy Industries.

Want more? Hear the homeboys share their poetry.

Homeboy's program "is not intervention. This is a different model of rehabilitation," explains Leap about the longitudinal study, the first two years of which have been funded by a $200,000 grant from the Haynes Foundation. The researchers are currently seeking funding to extend the evaluation to five years.

"Homeboy changes the trajectory of people's lives," Franke says. "But how do we measure it? How do we define success? This has never been evaluated." He adds that the study is designed to "clearly identify the parts of Homeboy that are working, and most importantly why they're working, for whom they're working and for whom they're not working. To build a body of evidence that supports their claims of doing good."

L.A. native Father Greg Boyle created "Jobs for the Future" in 1988. The anti-gang program eventually became Homeboy Industries.

Back at Homeboy Industries, Boyle is talking to a young man in his glass-walled, memorabilia-stuffed office outside the controlled chaos of the reception area. Father Greg takes a felt pen and writes down, "Tuesday, Feb. 3, 11:30" on a sheet of paper, folds it, and gives it to his guest. "That's when we do our drug testing," he tells the young job searcher, then smiles gently.

Even before the youth is out of the office, another one enters. Another dashed note. Another appointment made. Another homeboy given hope.

Thanks to two dedicated Bruin scientists, that hope may soon be quantified.