Within the country's largest gang intervention program, young men and women learn job skills working side-by-side with their would-be rivals. That's because one of Homeboy Industries' founding principles is that it works with gang members -- not gangs.
Los Angeles-based Homeboy Industries provides academic, career and re-entry services to thousands of current and former gang members every day, founder and director Father Gregory Boyle explained to a group of Huffington Post editors and reporters on Monday.
The organization's opportunities and programs fill in gaps in government services, Boyle said. It has grown to include a charter school as well as social services and job training facilities. The nonprofit also has a bakery, farmers markets and a cafe that all employ gang members.
Boyle, a former Los Angeles pastor, said he had to bury 180 young people lost to violence in the 1980s, which prompted him to create the organization. He explained that the approach to re-entry services must go much deeper than the common perception of what causes gang violence.
"It's not about conflict, or else peacemaking would work," he said. "It's about despair -- not rational grievance. No shooter is hoping to kill; rather they are hoping to die."
Boyle said Homeboy has received recognition for its role in Los Angeles' declining gang-related homicide rate. But perhaps an even greater testament to its effectiveness is Will Lopez, a former gang member who found a new start through Homeboy. He sought out the help of Father Doyle, his neighborhood priest at the time, who assisted him in finding a job and a direction in life.
Lopez told The Huffington Post that he has worked in fields from maintenance to computer technology, but that he has developed a specific interest in speaking out against domestic violence. His father was murdered, and he wanted to make sure he would be involved in his own daughter's life.
"I made a commitment to my daughter that that wouldn't happen," he said.
Like the gang members it helps, Homeboy has had its share of hardships. After the Homeboy Bakery burned down in October 1999, the nonprofit relied on donors. (Disclosure: HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Arianna Huffington helped lead that effort.)
Father Boyle added that the organization ran out of money 18 months ago, due in part to the recession. The company laid off numerous employees and Boyle stopped taking paychecks.
"In the early days, you could always find jobs for the 'homies,'" Boyle said, noting that competition in the job market took a toll on the organization's efforts.
Homeboy has inspired 15 similar initiatives around the country, from San Francisco to Boston. The organization also has a successful food line found in major grocery stores, and it is working to spread the word about how its programs can work in other areas. Boyle sums it by saying the approach comes down to one mantra.
"Let's be smart on crime, rather than soft or hard on crime."
Learn about opportunities to get involved with Homeboy Industries here.
Russell Bishop contributed reporting.
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