It was Father Gregory Boyle's first invitation to address the Los Angeles Police Commission, and he had something to get off his chest.
For a quarter of a century, Boyle has steered boys and girls, and men and women, out of the gang life through Homeboy Industries, which offers job training, counseling, tattoo removal and more. The model Boyle built has been replicated around the country and abroad.
Here in Los Angeles, some 120,000 gang members have voluntarily asked Father Boyle for help starting over. They struggle daily against the socioeconomic forces that drew them into gang life. But Homeboy itself confronts another daily struggle.
Making ends meet.
FOR THE RECORD:
Homeboy Industries: A column in the Jan. 26 Section A said that Homeboy Industries had a $1-million budget deficit that might necessitate 60 more layoffs this year. Though the organization did lose $1 million in government funding, it also cut expenditures to close the gap and does not anticipate client/trainee layoffs. —
"Our government funding has gone in the last three years from 20% of our annual $14-million budget to 3%," Boyle told the police commissioners.
And then he had this pithy observation:
"I suspect if we were a shelter for abandoned puppies we'd be endowed by now. But we're a place of second chances for gang members and felons. It's a tough sell, but a good bet."
Boyle has been making that bet for 30 years, never excusing the violence, but also trying to understand where it comes from. He told the commission he lives by two rules of refusal:
"Refuse to demonize a single gang member, and refuse to romanticize a single gang."
Steve Soboroff, the commission chairman who invited Boyle to speak, told me he did so for a specific purpose. Crime rates are down, and Soboroff considers gang intervention a key part of the reason. Earl Paysinger, an LAPD assistant chief, said he shudders to think what shape the city would be in without Homeboy.
"I'm heartened that in 2012, gang-related crime has been reduced by 18% and gang-related homicide by nearly 10%," Boyle told the commission. "And I think Homeboy has had an impact on that."
But Boyle didn't hide his frustration, arguing that Homeboy's services save the public millions of dollars in reduced violence and incarceration.
"We shouldn't be struggling this much. God love the Museum of Contemporary Art, which can raise $100 million in 10 months to endow itself," he said. "They were so successful they moved the goal posts to $150 million, and we're just trying to keep our heads above water."
Warhols and puppies, Boyle shrugged. "Go figure."
I had reached out to Boyle because I'd heard that both he and Homeboy were having health problems. It turns out that Boyle is OK after the latest round of treatment for his chronic leukemia, and he told me he's not even thinking about slowing down.
"Jesuits retire in the graveyard," he said.
But yes, he conceded, Homeboy could use some vitamins.
We had lunch at Homegirl Cafe on Wednesday and I got more of the details. Homeboy had to lay off about 40 people last fall and projects another 60 layoffs this year unless it can plug a roughly $1-million budget deficit.
A few years ago, things were even worse. Homeboy had to tighten its operation, but that time the county also pitched in, with the first of three payments totaling $3 million. Today, the only government funding is a small sum from the state.
But that doesn't stop the county from relying on Boyle. At lunch, Boyle told me that another bus had arrived at Homeboy just that morning from one of the juvenile detention camps, carrying kids who wanted their gang tattoos removed.
"We get zero dollars for that," said Boyle.
Homeboy's five paid therapists and 47 volunteers counsel youngsters who have dodged death and lost parents to violence, drugs or jail. But there's nothing in the county's $1.5-billion mental health budget for Homeboy, nor is the nonprofit in line to receive any of L.A. County's roughly $300 million in state funds for prison population reduction.
UCLA professor Jorja Leap, who studies gangs and intervention programs, has spent nearly five years tracking 300 Homeboy clients. She says she's seen solid results, and that the majority of the 300 have stayed out of prison, had reduced their levels of traumatic stress disorder, found full- or part-time work and rekindled family ties.
"There is no one like them for one-stop shopping," she said of Homeboy.
At the commission hearing, Father Boyle said he hoped Mayor Eric Garcetti would support a program with such a long track record.
I wouldn't bet on it. When I asked Garcetti's office for a response, a spokesman emailed me a teaspoon of vanilla.
"Mayor Garcetti has great respect for Father Gregory Boyle and Homeboy Industries," said the first of two noncommittal sentences.
Homeboy might have better results with L.A. County supervisors, although none of them has recently given any of their roughly $1 million in annual discretionary funds to Homeboy. Staff for Supervisors Mike Antonovich, Gloria Molina and Don Knabe all gave nods to Boyle and expressed a desire to help him compete for various pools of money. Knabe took it a step further, saying, "My real goal would be for a long-term partnership with Homeboy."
But this is Los Angeles, home to 22 billionaires at last count. Home to a Hollywood crowd that congratulates itself for its social conscience and, in just one night at George Clooney's house, raised $15 million for Barack Obama — more than Homeboy's annual budget.
A Jesuit priest, meanwhile, goes begging for a little help with his life's mission. Boyle has now presided over 193 funerals, becoming more determined, with each one, to prevent the next.