L.A.'s Homeboy Industries lays off most employees
The institution dedicated to helping gang members quit lives of crime has been unable to raise the $5 million it needs. A quarter of the staff will remain.
By Hector Becerra
Los Angeles Times
May 14, 2010
Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles institution whose mission for more than 20 years has been to turn jobs into a recipe for saving the lives of gang members, laid off most of its employees Thursday because of crushing financial problems.
Father Gregory Boyle, who started Homeboy Industries in Boyle Heights during the height of the city's gang wars, said 300 people were laid off, including all senior staff and administrators. Boyle said he has stopped taking a paycheck.
"We let people know so they could apply for unemployment, which I'm going to do as well," he said.
Inside the organization's headquarters at Alameda and Bruno streets in Chinatown, employees — many of them former gang members — took turns embracing and consoling Boyle. Young men crowded around him and promised to come back even without pay.
"We love you, G. We'll be here tomorrow," said one. The 55-year-old priest called it a "Frank Capra moment," but he was noticeably dejected.
For two decades, Homeboy Industries has offered counseling, removed tattoos and helped gang members find jobs. Its motto: "Nothing stops a bullet like a job."
But Boyle said no amount of campaigning and fundraising could make up the roughly $5 million the organization needed to operate. He said pleas for donations had resulted in some help, but not nearly enough.
He acknowledged that the people Homeboy Industries helps have always been a hard sell, and more so when the economy is struggling.
"If these were puppies or little kids, we wouldn't be in this trouble," he said. "But they're tattooed gang members with records. So I think a lot of people love this place, but not the folks who can write the big checks, the 'Save the Hollywood sign' check."
The only employees not laid off were more than 100 who work in the organization's businesses, including its store, bakery and Homegirl Cafe. Boyle said that for the moment, the social services offered would continue, precariously, only because employees said they would keep coming. Eventually, like others left in the lurch by the worst economic downturn since the 1930s, many would need to find work elsewhere.
"We cobbled together payrolls since November. But it was not enough to save us," Boyle said. "Hope has left the building a little bit. Miracles happen. They just haven't happened for us lately."
Still, the priest emphasized to his staff that this was not the end for Homeboy Industries.
Boyle acknowledged some blunders. When he embarked on a campaign to raise money to buy the building on Alameda Street, the organization did not factor in enough money to pay for operations that serve more than 12,000 gang members and former gang members a year, he said.
The $5 million "should have been included in our capital campaign, and it wasn't," Boyle said. "And that was our error.... We sort of forgot that we were going to put a program in this place."
Homeboy Industries probably would have weathered that mistake, but then the recession struck — and the organization became busier.
"The recession happened, and everyone and his mother, every ZIP Code that has a gang had people coming here from all over the county," Boyle said.
Homeboy Industries has gotten plaudits from influential politicians, celebrities and, increasingly, high-ranking LAPD officials — though over the years, rank-and-file officers have been critical, calling Boyle an apologist for gangbangers who don't always change.
But Boyle has become an L.A. icon because of his work, with some supporters saying he should be considered for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Hector Verdugo, 35, a former gang member from Boyle Heights who became a top administrator at Homeboy Industries, said it was only natural that the priest's wards would try to comfort him when they saw him crying Thursday. Together, they prayed in the lobby and vowed to return as long as they could, even without pay.
"Everyone just said, 'Thank you, G, for bringing us this far,' " said Verdugo, a father of three. "But this isn't the end. Like Father G said, this is just a pause."
Money woes come at Boyle and Homeboy high points
Father Gregory Boyle's latest book got good reviews and his Homeboy Industries, which aims at getting people out of gangs, has a taker for mass-producing a product. But the revenue just isn't there.
By Hector Becerra
Los Angeles Times
May 15, 2010
This should be
a triumphant moment for Father Gregory Boyle.
The founder of Homeboy Industries just published a memoir that has been well reviewed, and focused more attention on his decades of work using jobs to get young people out of gangs.
A major supermarket wants to mass-produce Homegirl Cafe's salsa, and the priest dreams that it could become Homeboy Industries' version of Newman's Own salad dressing. The cafe is even in the running to expand into a new wing at LAX, Boyle said.
But on Friday, he was struggling to keep Homeboy Industries alive.
The day before, Boyle had announced that Homeboy was laying off 300 employees, including all senior staff and administrators, and that he had stopped collecting a paycheck.
"If you look at the trajectory of Homeboy, it's unbelievable. And that's the irony," the 55-year-old Boyle said Friday. "This place has never been healthier in terms of its vision. And we have no money."
For all the accolades Homeboy Industries has garnered for its work taking gang members off the streets and training them for jobs, generating the revenue to pay for its services has proved increasingly difficult.
The organization actually receives little funding these days from local government, which instead is focusing more on gang intervention programs that focus on reducing violence among current gang members, he said.
The recession has hurt Homeboy in several ways. The private donations that typically help balance the budget are down. And there are fewer jobs for graduates of Homeboy's various programs.
"A lot of good workers lost their jobs," Boyle said. "So when there's an opening for something, who are they going to pick, one of my guys who's tattooed and is a felon, or somebody with a good work history?"
Boyle said L.A.'s dramatic drop in crime — and gang violence — may have in its own way contributed to Homeboy's financial problems. With less gang violence, he said, helping reformed gang members feels less urgent to some donors.
Boyle started his work when L.A.'s gang mayhem was at its worst. In the early 1990s, slayings totaled more than 2,000 in the county, twice as many as in recent years. In 1992, L.A. alone had 1,092 killings; two years ago, that number dropped to 382 homicides.
At first, Boyle delved into some of the most dangerous neighborhoods on the city's Eastside, gaining a reputation as a charismatic but forceful priest with a knack for moving gang members, even if police officers thought he just protected them. In the early days, he even attended some gang parties.
But years ago, concerned about giving gangs too much respect, he changed his approach. Rather than dealing directly with gang activities, Boyle began to focus on gang members trying to leave the life. Homeboy specializes in job training and mental health counseling, as well as tattoo removal and job placement.
This shift, however, has hurt Homeboy's ability to get local government anti-gang funds. Local officials in recent years have been more interested in on-the-ground gang intervention programs that attempt to defuse dangerous gang feuds.
"I don't believe in that approach. I used to do it. I'll never do it again," Boyle said. "License to operate means you will be given permission by the gang to work in a neighborhood. Pick a reason why that's a dumb approach."
In recent years, Homeboy has expanded significantly, symbolized by the new headquarters near Chinatown that has become a local landmark. When the recession hit two years ago, the demand for training and counseling also increased. But at the same time, revenue declined, and Homeboy has struggled to keep its finances afloat. It's now serving 12,000 current and former gang members a year but has a $5-million deficit.
Boyle said that even if someone comes forward to rescue Homeboy Industries, he knows he may have to make some changes in the way his group does business. The organization's own board members and funders have told him for years that Homeboy's budget is not sustainable. It could mean even fewer employees.
The priest said that he's open to change, even if it means thinking more like a businessman.
"I guess so. The board wants me to make changes," Boyle said. "But right now, we need bridge money to get around this corner."
Outside his office, as TV crews and callers with surefire ways to get out of this mess vied for Boyle's attention, Brian Moon, a tattooed 22-year-old from Koreatown, said that he may have lost his paycheck, but not his faith in the group, or the priest.
"There's nowhere else but up," he said. "I'm not worried."
Asked if he was as optimistic, Boyle smiled.
"I'm always more hopeful than I am optimistic," he said.
"Hope comes from the soul; optimism comes from observable evidence. And this place is soaked with hope."
Homeboy Industries pins hopes on chips and salsa
At Ralphs stores in Southern California, the fundraising snacks are hot sellers.
By Betty Hallock
Los Angeles Times
February 17, 2011
The chips are
falling into place for Homeboy Industries.
The hottest-selling snack item at 256 Ralphs deli sections across Southern California in the first weeks of February wasn't pretzels, or cheese puffs, or pita or bagel crisps. According to the Compton-based supermarket chain, the No. 1 seller was Homeboy Industries' tortilla chips and salsa.
Homeboy Industries, the Los Angeles nonprofit founded by Father Gregory Boyle to help former gang members and convicts turn their lives around, launched its line of chips and salsa at Ralphs last month as part of an effort to revive its hard-hit finances. The high hope is that they might be the start of Homeboy's version of Newman's Own — the company created by the late Paul Newman that transformed salad dressing into social enterprise.
So will chips and salsa turn a community institution into a national consumer brand that tunes grocery shoppers in to the problems of disaffected youth?
"The aim is to expand the brand so that Homeboy becomes a household name and then a household idea," says Boyle (a Jesuit priest also affectionately known as "Father G"), whose job-training program — started 23 years ago at Dolores Mission parish — has helped thousands of young people from several hundred L.A. gangs find work.
As part of the Homeboy logo puts it: "Jobs not jails" (a catchier version of the motto, "Nothing stops a bullet like a job"). Instead of the face of a celebrity such as Newman on the packaging, the label shows two young men with shaved heads and goatees wearing baggy Homeboy sweatshirts and outlines a mission to reform through work experience.
Homeboy's businesses — such as a bakery and a silkscreen company — aim to provide jobs for its clients, but the chips and salsa are for now strictly a foray into a new revenue stream. The salsas are based on Homegirl Café chef Patricia "Pati" Zarate's recipes but actually are made by El Burrito Food Products Inc. (which claims it was the first company to commercially package fresh salsa) in City of Industry. The chips are made by Snak King, also based in City of Industry. Homeboy receives part of the sales in an agreement with the manufacturers, the distributor and Ralphs.
Industry analysts note the challenges of breaking into the already-crowded about-$20-billion U.S. "salty snack" market, which is dominated by Frito-Lay and Kraft Foods. But just getting Homeboy chips on the shelves is a coup, the result of a collaboration with Ralphs, which waived slotting fees — what food manufacturers sometimes pay grocery companies to carry a new product — and donated $50,000 to the project.
Proceeds go to funding Homeboy services such as tattoo removal and counseling. "If we can increase revenue, we could fundraise less," Boyle says. Or not at all. "I don't know if we can ever reach that goal. But at least so we're not white-knuckling it."
Boyle knows white-knuckling: Last year, Homeboy laid off about 330 people and nearly shut its doors when it couldn't raise the $5 million needed to operate. Because of donations, "things have stabilized. We've brought back senior staff, about 100 jobs," he says. "We should have had a cushion, more money after building" new headquarters.
In an industrial part of Chinatown, the bustling Homeboy complex — a $12.5-million project that opened in 2007 — houses the Homegirl Café and Homeboy Bakery, part of the organization's small conglomerate of businesses. In the same building where Zarate turns out beef tinga tacos, linguine with jalapeńo pesto and tofu salad for the cafe, ex-gangsters take classes such as relationship building, solar panel installation and Homiewood: Filmmaking for Life.
Meanwhile, Homegirl Café plans to expand to Los Angeles International Airport, and a Homeboy General Store is slated to open this spring in City Hall downtown. The bakery, Homeboy's original business and the employer of about 40 people, turns out more than 3,000 breads and pastries a day — croissants, cookies, tarts, baguettes and sourdough loaves that are sold at 17 farmers markets and increasingly at "foodie" spots such as Intelligentsia coffee houses in Silver Lake and Pasadena and the new Black Cat Bakery on Fairfax Avenue.
Boyle is sitting in his office at Homeboy headquarters on a recent weekday with a printed e-mail and reads off sales numbers. "It's the first thing I announced at my morning meeting. We're the No. 1 snack item. In the first week, we sold 8,793 units of chips and 10,287 units of salsa."
"From concept to store shelves, it took less than six months," says Bruce Karatz, former chief executive of KB Homes who now helps Homeboy as a consultant. The Ralphs downtown had offered the mango and morita salsas made by Homegirl Café in the deli section beginning in 2009, but discussion of commercially packaged chips and salsa started last June. "It just went very quickly. People like helping us."
There are plans to offer other products and to approach Cincinnati-based Kroger Co., which owns Ralphs, to put Homeboy goods on store shelves outside of Southern California. "The big dream is to get Homeboy chips and salsa into the more than 3,600 Kroger stores" in the U.S., says Kendra Doyel, vice president of marketing at Ralphs.
The next Homeboy product? Zarate's salad dressings (think lime and cilantro, creamy chipotle, or hibiscus and cayenne sea salt). "The more food products, the more shelf space, the more sales, the more revenue to support Homeboy's services," Karatz says.
If the challenge outside of Southern California might be to attract shoppers who aren't familiar with Homeboy Industries — with zero ad dollars — that isn't a problem in downtown Los Angeles. "You know, the climate has so changed in 23 years," Boyle says. "People took offense at working with gang members. Now Homeboy is known in California, and people have good feelings about it."
Inside the Ralphs at 9th and Flower streets, racks of Homeboy tortilla strips stand next to a refrigerated case filled with Homeboy salsa. Matthew Bray, a manager at the Futon Shop, has two bags of Homeboy chips in his cart. "I saw [Boyle] on TV and what he's doing, and I think it's amazing. At first I bought just one bag thinking it can't be all that bad, and now I'm buying two at a time. I'm addicted."