05/17/2010 07:46 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Jesuit-Run Gang Ministry Cuts Staff

By David Finnigan
Religion News Service

LOS ANGELES (RNS) A prominent anti-gang ministry here run by a Jesuit priest has laid off 330 of its 427 staffers as its deals with a $5 million deficit and decreasing donations because of the poor economy.

The Rev. Gregory Boyle's Homeboy Industries has been life-changing for hundreds of Southern California gang members seeking redemption and job training. But on Friday (May 14) the organization announced the dismissal of three-fourths of its staff, a move that shocked L.A. philanthropic circles and prompted a fresh round of donations.

"People have been coming through here non-stop (over the weekend)," Boyle said. "It's not enough to save us, but we're hopeful."

For 18 years, Homeboy Industries has helped ex-gang members with free programs offering tattoo removal and jobs in the Homeboy bakery, cafe, catering company, silkscreen shop, and merchandising unit. Saying, "nothing stops a bullet like a job," Boyle has become a force in crime-infested East Los Angeles, respected by gang members and police.

The non-profit moved into a large, two-story building near downtown Los Angeles three years ago, fueled by increased demand for Homeboy's anti-gang work. The extra space then allowed Homeboy to create a program, "commensurate with the size of the building," said Boyle, explaining how his paid staff jumped to 427. "We probably didn't prepare ourselves very well in terms of capitalizing the move."

The increase in Homeboy's paid staff was occurring alongside the national decrease in foundation grants prompted by the economic slump, with the $5 million deficit a problem since last November. "Foundations started to pull back," Boyle said.

Former Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan publicly has vowed to help Boyle raise the $5 million needed to keep Homeboy open. The loss of three-fourths of his staff came after Boyle received much flattering press for his memoir, "Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion," published in March.

The priest said his Catholic order, the Society of Jesus, "helps a little. We're kind of on our own over here."

Since the May 14th layoff announcement, online donations have been helping, too. "Things are trickling in, we've probably gotten about $70,000 in the online donations," Boyle said. "Lots of people are starting to position to, we hope, help."