05/20/2010 05:01 pm ET Updated 4 days ago

Greg Boyle Has Saved Thousands of Latino Lives In Los Angeles. So Why Might He Go Out Of Business?

There are many things that go wrong and we can't do anything about them, but you would think that a guy who has transformed tens of thousands of lives over 23 years in the lousiest part of LA could find $5 million somewhere to keep going.

That's not the case.

Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest, launched Homeboy Industries in the poorest parish in Los Angeles in 1986. His goal: break the cycle of drugs and violence in what was then an African-American ghetto and is now nearly 100% Latino. And he did it. He created job training programs and developed businesses. The community responded --- to say "G" is beloved is to understate.

Along the way, Greg Boyle never perved a single kid. He presided over funeral after funeral of kids he loved who were living clean and were shot anyway. He got leukemia. He wrote a book, Tattoos on the Heart: The Power of Boundless Compassion, which is just out and, at 212 pages, a pleasure to read.

Nothing can stop this guy. Or so his many friends and admirers have long believed. But now reality bites hard and deep --- without a large infusion of cash, Homeboy is history.

What's $5 million in Los Angeles?

Earlier this year, it cost a million to save the Hollywood sign, and that money --- private money --- appeared. A few years ago, Reggie the Alligator got loose and the city spent as much as $200,000 to capture him and create a safe home for him. But although the Los Angeles police chief and sheriff are said to be big fans of Homeboy, the city prefers to spend its $25 million on gang intervention programs elsewhere.

The State of California? It would be happier throwing Greg Boyle's clientele in prison --- if, that is, it wasn't suffering such a budget crunch that it will soon have to start emptying the jails. The federal government? Laura Bush delighted in hosting Boyle and some of his homies at the White House; the Obamas seem not to know that Homeboy exists. (Memo to Michelle Obama...)

Okay, what about the Catholic church? If ever there was an institution that could use some good publicity, it's the Los Angeles Archdiocese --- three years ago, it agreed to pay $660 million to 508 people who accused priests of sexual abuse. Throwing money at Greg Boyle makes even better sense for the Church when you consider that 70% of the four million Catholics in the LA area are Latino. One more Hispanic connection: Jose Gomez, the recently-appointed co-adjutor of the Archdiocese (he'll be the next Archbishop) was born in Mexico and was trained as an accountant --- I'll bet he could do a cost-benefit analysis of support for Homeboy on the back of an envelope.

But no money will be forthcoming from the Archdiocese, which has been selling buildings to help pay down that astonishing $660 million judgment. This leaves Rome, which cannot credibly argue that it's cash-poor. Scraping the gold leaf from a few Vatican ceilings would pay for most of Homeboy's shortfall --- but if you believe the Vatican cares about the least of its brethren in the barrios of Los Angeles, you have not been reading the news these last few months.

Which leaves two group of possible supporters: the extremely wealthy residents of the West Side of Los Angeles and what might be called the Little People. None of these potential donors will be much affected by anything that happens to Greg Boyle's posse --- if the Homeboy trainees become gangbangers and dope pushers, their most likely victims are one another. But there is the small matter of valuing human lives and declaring some "ours" --- worth considerably more than "theirs."

This shouldn't be. But I don't like the "should" argument --- behind the high-minded word, I see the wagging finger of the prude, the nag, the zealot, the bore. I do think it's okay to say: This isn't right. And I think it's fair to confess that when I called Greg Boyle to interview him, I was so pissed off I could hardly keep from screaming.

Jesse Kornbluth: You would think they'd be building statues of you. You're running the largest gang intervention program in Los Angeles. Your businesses are successful and expanding. The press loves you. But last week, you laid off 330 of your 427 employees. For a beloved enterprise, that had to be hard to explain to your crew.

Greg Boyle: I thought I'd talk about it Friday, but at the morning meeting on Thursday, I told the senior council we'd better start putting out the word that we're laying off 270 trainees and all 60 people on the senior staff.

JK: How fast did the bad news travel?

GB: I came back from lunch, and people had gathered in the lobby. It was a sobfest --- a lot of hugging and crying. And all the concern was for us. No one said, "How will I pay my rent?" It was all "We'll work even if you don't pay us" and "You saved my life."

JK: I don't get it. A business that's growing --- and you're broke. What's the disconnect?

GB: Some of the blame is on us. We now have a $9 million annual budget, but most of that goes to our training programs --- we bring in only $3.5 million through our businesses. We had a capital campaign a few years ago and raised $12 million for this building. We should have factored in another $5 or $6 million for operating expenses. Because we didn't, we've needed to raise money for the last three years.

JK: You're a celebrity in Los Angeles. If anyone could get help from the business community....

GB: It's ironic --- our biggest problem is dealing with businessmen. They look at our numbers and ask, "Why aren't your businesses making money to support your training program?" That day will never come. As our businesses become more successful, they'll contribute more --- but never 100%. Face it: When it comes to raising money, we're a tough sell. Homeboy isn't puppies or Warhols. We're gang members with tattoos.

JK: Ezra Pound said, "A slave is a man who waits for another man to free him." What is your own community doing to raise money?

GB: Homeboys grabbed some of my books and went to the streets to sell them. In the old spirit of "Let's put on a show," there are car washes. One homeboy is a comedian. He organized a Latino stand-up last night at a club --- a hundred people showed up.

JK: Nice, but that's not going to raise $5 million. What about the Catholic Church? You'd be great publicity for an institution that only gets awful publicity.

GB: I'm told many pastors talked about us at Mass last weekend.

JK: You won't raise millions that way. What's the worst case scenario?

GB: We close.

JK: Isn't that a disaster for more than Homeboy? Won't kids go back to violence and drugs?

GB: Two kids told me, "If this had happened eight months earlier, I'd go back to drugs and gangbanging." But now they have some resilience. I'm more concerned about all the people in prison on drug charges --- some of whom will be released if the State cuts back the prison budgets. A guy who spent 20 years in prison came out and said, "Homeboy is all we talked about." We represent hope --- not just to those walking in our door, but to people who aren't ready to walk in yet. If kids can imagine that one day they can leave the gang life behind, that's compelling.

JK: Well, I'd like to help you find a more tangible kind of hope. What can we do?

GB: Make an online donation or send a check to Homeboy Industries, 130 West Bruno St., Los Angeles, Ca. 90012

JK: While I'd love to see a heavy hitter make a large donation online, my experience is that big money requires personal attention.

GB: The number for our Development Office is 323 526 1254.

JK: Look ahead. What do you see?

GB: I'm kind of hopeful. We have the potential for a great moment: "Endow a museum, help Homeboy." I can't believe we've come this far to close.

[Cross-posted from]