Is healing formerly gang-involved and previously incarcerated people more important than helping them get jobs?
If you’d like to know the answer to that question, just ask Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. The world’s largest gang rehabilitation and reentry program, it serves more than 9,000 community clients annually.
And over the years, Homeboy has found that a healing-centered approach to dealing with the clients it serves works better than the job-centered approach it previously employed.
When Father Greg became the parish priest at a church in the middle of two L.A. housing projects more than 30 years ago, eight gangs were at war with each other. And the area had what he describes as “the highest concentration of gang violence in the world.”
Getting a job is not enough
He began to befriend the local homies, and they would tell him, “If we only we had jobs.” He launched a program called Jobs for the Future and connected with felon friendly employers. When he couldn’t find enough of those, his nonprofit started social enterprises like Homeboy Bakery.
A certain incident about 18 years ago forced him to reconsider his approach. At that time, Father Greg helped get a homie named Robert a career in the movie industry. Not just a job but a real career. But it didn’t work out. “All of the sudden his lady leaves him, and he’s doing 125 years to life in prison. He was toppled by events,” says Father Greg.
That was the wakeup call. He knew things had to change. Finding jobs just wasn’t enough. The opposite of Robert is someone who is healed, he says. “Who joins gangs anyway? It’s folks who are traumatized and despondent and have mental health issues.”
Healing prevents reoffending
While Homeboy still provides jobs and pays people wages, after the experience with Robert, it began to offer therapy and groups. “An employed gang member may or may not go back to prison and an educated one may or may not. It became our intention that a healed gang member won’t ever reoffend,” Father Greg adds.
“Primary at Homeboy is the culture that we nurtured and created. A traumatized gang member is more likely to cause trauma. A cherished person is going to find the way to cherishing themselves and others. The culture is the number one thing. We do all the other things, like job training, but they’re secondary to a culture that heals.”
Creating this culture hasn’t been easy. “There’s a kind of a feel. It’s a very tactile, affectionate place. You’re in a room packed with hundreds and hundreds of folks who are African American and Latino. Everyone has multiple enemies that they work side by side with. Everything is dissolved in the spirit of the place. You can see it when you walk into the room. It’s kind of our secret sauce,” says Father Greg.
“They say with any kind of social dilemma like homelessness or disaffection, the first stop is a safe place, a place that holds you in high regard. Then they can say, ‘This is a safe place. I can trust the people here.’ Only then you can excavate the wounds and take it from there.”
Therapy is the most important of Homeboy’s wraparound services. It has four paid therapists on staff and 49 volunteer therapists, including three psychiatrists.
“They’re helping people find their balance and meds and whatever they need. But it’s more bumping into people in the hallways that is so key. And seeing people and laughing with them and sharing their lives with each other. That trumps everything, including classes like anger management, and grief and loss,” says Father Greg.
ACE test and what it means
If a score on the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Test is any indication, Homeboy clients need help. Most people would score low on this test, which measures childhood neglect and abuse. (You can take the test at the link above.) But “everyone who walks through our doors is a nine or 10,” he says. “Knowing this invites people to stand in awe of what people have to carry. I suspect that everyone’s a 10, but the guys are less forthcoming about sexual abuse. As for the female gang members, every single one has suffered that.”
World’s largest tattoo removal program
While therapy is important, what gets many people in the door and has proven to be Homeboy’s most popular and critical service is tattoo removal. It’s part of the organization’s culture of healing and removes an obstacle that many people find prevents them from redirecting their lives. That obstacle may prevent them from being good role models (especially for their children and young relatives) and become contributing members of their community, including gaining employment. Homeboy conducted more than 11,000 tattoo removal sessions, removing 43,777 tattoos, in 2018 with a staff of eight and 35 volunteer doctors.
Advice for others
Father Greg offers advice for other organizations that would like to implement a healing-centered model.
“I always say that if love is the answer, community is the context and tenderness is the methodology. Context is everything. Everybody embraces content at the expense of context. You can deliver therapy, but it’s the context that matters. We live in a society that’s all about content. If only we knew more. But it’s the context. Here’s the place that will receive you. We won’t try to reach you. We will try to be reached by you. Suddenly you’ve changed the whole tenor of the place.”
To create a healing community, it’s essential to have a physical space that people can come to.
“There has to be a there, there. It’s important to have a place,” says Father Greg. A lot of times people have it be mentoring with individuals. That’s good, but there’s no substitute for a place where people think they belong. It solidifies something. A family they’ve never had, a community they’ve never known. You create a substitute for the gang, which is a place of conditional love, and offer a place of unconditional love.”
It’s also important to involve members of your community in leadership roles.
“We try to do leadership from below. Half of the people who run the place now are folks who went through the program,” he says. “They’re always the best folks, because it’s in their DNA. They really know the place and how it works.”
Jails to Jobs is a member of the Global Homeboy Network. Each year it sends some of its volunteers to the annual gathering. And they always come back energized with new ideas to put to good use.
Editor’s note: To get a better sense of how Homeboy Industries operates and what sets it apart in terms of activities and goals, check out the chart in a recent article about Homeboy on the MDRC website. If you are a nonprofit dealing with formerly incarcerated individuals, we hope it will inspire you to examine, and possibly improve, your own efforts.