In the midst of an economic recession, the task of providing social services to an underserved population is growing more and more daunting. In some census tracts on the Northside, the poverty rate is as high as 30%. Homeboy Industries, in Los Angeles, California, tackles a similarly heavy task. In 1988 Father Greg Boyle founded Homeboy Industries to address the need for youth employment opportunities. Their work continues to impact the lives of young people throughout Los Angeles.
Currently, Los Angeles County is home to 34% of California’s poor, and 75% of youth gang homicides in the state occur here. The Homeboy organization focuses on formerly gang-involved and incarcerated men and women. Their model combines a range of services including: employment services—job preparation and placement; mental health services—individual therapy, substance abuse counseling, and group classes; legal services; curriculum and education—GED preparation, and a partnership with Learning Works! (a program that specializes in the education of young people); Solar Panel Training and Installation—preparing students to take a national certification test; and a charter high school offering life skills and enrichment classes.
Twenty-five percent of the funding for Homeboy’s services comes from its seven social enterprises, which include: Homeboy Bakery, Homeboy Silkscreen & Embroidery, Homegirl Café & Catering, Homeboy/girl Merchandise, Homeboy Farmers’ Market, Homeboy Diner at Los Angeles City Hall, and Homeboy Grocery (distributing products through regional grocery chains). In 2012, the businesses were estimated to bring in about $3,500,000 per year. By providing employees with a living wage, they are able to provide for their families while learning valuable soft and vocational skills. Homeboy employs between 240-280 people per year. As Northside UP works to create a social enterprise, we believe Homeboy Industries’ approach is transferable to other settings.
Homeboy attributes their foundation of success to making programs and opportunities easily accessible for clients—everything takes place in gang-neutral downtown Los Angeles. By keeping all services in one location, clients are more likely to access all Homeboy has to offer, and because they are more engaged, they are more likely to successfully complete programs. In certain parts of the Northside, as many as 36% of residents do not have access to a vehicle. Northside UP plans to focus its initial social enterprise efforts on improving the quality of life for residents of bourgeoning neighborhoods.
Homeboy Industries has found the primary driver for gang-involvement to be lack of alternative options and opportunities. One hundred percent of Homeboy’s clients are low-income, 99.9% are people of color, most have PTSD or complex trauma, most were abused or abandoned as children, all witnessed violence, and most have only an elementary school reading level. Gang-involvement is largely an effect of poverty. Yet, Homeboy points out that to children who must walk through various gang territories to get to school, who have never seen anyone graduate college, or are homeless, “joining a gang does not always seem like a bad (or particularly big) decision.” In order to break the cycle, better options and opportunities need to be made available.
Homeboy provides second chances to those of whom the rest of society has discounted. The organization is an outstanding example of rethinking a flawed system. By engaging in social enterprise, Syracuse can do its part to offer alternative options and opportunities for the underserved in our community. By increasing opportunities, we can reduce costs and drive economic revitalization. Perhaps most importantly, by creating opportunities, we enable the people in our community to make positive life choices that result in positive life changes.