— Los Angeles police say Los Angeles is the "gang capital" of the United States, with hundreds of active criminal gangs. The city is also home to a gang and re-entry program called Homeboy Industries
which has helped thousands of young people say no to gangs and choose a better path. The program is so successful that other countries plagued by gangs are looking to Homeboy Industries for help.
There are more than 450 gangs in Los Angeles, but downtown, on the edge of Chinatown, it's gang neutral territory. It's also the home of Homeboy Bakery, where 19 year-old Kevin, who only uses his first name, is choosing to spend his days making pastries instead of walking the gang infested streets of East Los Angeles.
“Seeing my best friend die, seeing other family members dying because of this gang life, that’s what opened my eyes,” he explained.
The bakery is part of Homeboy Industries, a safe place for former gang members and parolees to work and prepare themselves for the real world. They go through an 18-month program that includes on-the-job training, education, counseling and even tattoo removal. Kevin said, while they are here, many former gang members are working with past enemies.
“As time keeps going, you start saying hi to them, 'hey what’s up, how’s it going,' you know, and at first you were shooting at each other, you were killing each other, killing each other’s friends, being rivals, to now talking to each other,” Kevin stated.
Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest, founded Homeboy Industries. He said former gang members can find common ground here.
“Everybody wants to feed their kids and pay their rent honestly and nobly, and everybody just wants their mom to be proud of them and their kids not to be ashamed. So that’s your common interest,” he said.
Boyle launched the program 25 years ago when he was pastor of a neighborhood with the highest concentration of gang activity in the world. He said many young people wanted to leave gang life but it was hard to get the community to give them a second chance.
“Convincing employers to hire them, that’s hard. Convincing people to give us money to fund this place, that’s hard," Boyle explained. "Convincing law enforcement and others not to demonize anybody, that was hard.”
Boyle said, over time, the community realized that sending gang members to prison did not necessarily stop the increase in violence. What did help was giving former gang members education, training, and mental health care. Last year, 8,000 former gang members came to Homeboy Industries for help. Boyle said 70 percent of those in the program do not return to prison.
Gangs don’t exist only in poor urban neighborhoods in the United States.
University of Southern California anthropology professor Thomas Ward said street gangs have become an American export, through the power of the media.
“That can be gangster rap music, it can be films, television. Kids are very influenced by what they see as tough gangster style,” he said.
Through deportations of undocumented immigrants, U.S. street gangs have also taken root in Central America. Gregory Boyle has been working with several countries in Latin America and Europe to create programs similar to Homeboy Industries.
Back in the bakery, Kevin said gang life is behind him. He has moved out of his old neighborhood and is now going to college. He dreams of working in law enforcement when he graduates.