When you’re in the business of second chances, you need a different kind of business model. For men and women released from prison, a second chance isn’t just rare — it’s a struggle. Forty to 60 percent have difficulty finding jobs upon release. Roughly two-thirds find themselves behind bars again, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics. A Los Angeles-based enterprise created by a Jesuit priest aims to change those stats. It’s called Homeboy Industries. For nearly 28 years, it has offered training and jobs to former inmates and gang members.
The solution is as simple as it is ambitious. Not only does Homeboy Industries train former inmates, it also creates businesses to employ them. Today, it owns nine social enterprises ranging from a bakery to a silkscreen and embroidery business. The bigger and better its businesses, the more revenue it can reinvest in training and services. Its model has become so successful that other gang rehabilitation programs around the country are looking to it. Its social enterprises provide 40 percent of its budget. For the rest, Homeboy Industries relies on donors.
Clients don’t just find jobs through Homeboy Industries. Other services help them transition into the community. “We also provide wraparound services like case management, tattoo removal, therapy,” says Theresa Nolasco, director of business development. “They are assigned a curriculum depending on [their] level of education when they enter our program. The classes we offer are not only traditional classes but also things like parenting classes, anger management, more like life skills type classes. A job is temporary, healing is forever.”
Gang presence in Los Angeles has decreased drastically. By 2014, gang crime in Los Angeles had dropped by half since 2008, for a variety of reasons, including housing costs and better policing. But, Kaile Shilling, the executive director of the Violence Prevention Coalition of Greater Los Angeles, believes, some of the credit is due to the city’s support services. “LA hasn’t just relied on suppression strategies,” she told the Huffington Post. “Support has been just as important.”
Roughly 10,000 people participate in Homeboy Industries’ classes each year. Its 18-month program serves between 200 and 300 trainees, supported by 70 staffers. In 2013, 284 community clients and participants in the 18-month training program found employment with the help of Homeboy Industries. Its solar program is particularly successful. Each year, Homeboy Industries pays for up to 80 participants to receive solar panel installation training at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s Adult and Career Education Division. The national pass rate for certification is 40%. Homeboy Industries’ pass rate is nearly 70 percent. The success of the enterprise has attracted people from throughout the country because of its tattoo removal service. “We do more tattoo removal than anywhere in the world,” says Alexa Rousso, corporate relations manager for Homeboy Industries. “People come from other states to get their gang tattoos removed. It really serves as a segue to get people to learn about our programs. People will come in and see friends or enemies all working together.”
Since it started, Homeboy Industries has transformed the lives of people such as Emmy-nominated actor Richard Cabral and chef Javier Medina, who has been featured in Bon Appetit. “We have a strong crew of graduates,” Rousso says. “We want to help them get into careers where they can make more than a living wage.”
Unfortunately, some of Homeboy Industries clients used the organization to hide illegal activity associated with the Mexican mafia in June 2015. Homeboy Industries released a statement in response, saying, “When people relapse we are truly heartbroken, but we remain committed to creating healthier and safer communities through our work. We are also saddened by the allegations that inappropriate activities may have taken place in the safe haven we have created. We will vigorously investigate these items and when contacted by law enforcement, we will fully cooperate with any inquiries.”
Last year, Homeboy Industries purchased a 6,000-square-foot building with the goal of providing services to up to 500 people. start new businesses and generate more revenue from those businesses. “Our hope is to have the whole block and have a little Homeboy campus so we can share it with more Angelinos,” Rousso says. “We’ve grown at a tremendous pace and the growth is really exciting, but as you scale it can be difficult to keep up with that growth.”
As they work to keep up with their growth, those at Homeboy Industries focus on one mission. “Speak with integrity, don’t make assumptions. That’s what the trainees are learning every day,” Rousso says.
— Hoa Quach Sanchez with additional reporting from Shelby Carpenter