For Homeboy Industries, a Bakery, Tattoo Removal, and Now Housing?

The legendary Los Angeles gang intervention program is looking to build a 157-unit complex for ‘homies’ at risk of becoming homeless

Over the past three decades, the local adoration for Homeboy Industries has nearly been matched by the nonprofit’s innovation and ability to form high-level connections. Founded by Father Gregory Boyle in East Los Angeles in 1988 with the aim to help gang members change their lives, it has gained legendary status.

The program that early on was known for its bakery—a place for often tattooed former gang members to get work experience and a paycheck—has expanded in unprecedented ways. In 2007 it moved to an $8.5 million headquarters on Bruno Street in Chinatown. Homeboy, billed as the world’s largest gang intervention, rehabilitation, and re-entry program, offers a wealth of services, from tattoo removal to mental health and substance abuse programs. It operates a panoply of businesses—“social enterprises” in the Homeboy parlance—including a silkscreen and embroidery shop, and an electronics recycling operation.

There’s also the Homegirl Café and, thanks to allegiances forged with power brokers, a diner in City Hall, and a bakery and sandwich shop at Terminal 4 in LAX. Before the onset of the pandemic, said Homeboy Industries CEO Tom Vozzo, the nonprofit served about 8,000 formerly incarcerated individuals and people seeking to get out of gang life each year. It had an approximately $25 million annual budget.

Now Homeboy is trying something new: It aims to get into housing development, with plans to construct a nearly $15 million residential complex for its “trainees.” The project, slated to go up on what is currently a city-owned parking lot across from its headquarters, is an effort again propelled by connections—Wayne Ratkovich, who has spent more than four decades building expansive, complicated projects across Los Angeles, joined the Homeboy board about two years ago, and is helping steer the effort through the city bureaucracy.

homeboy industries

Courtesy Homeboy Industries

The initial phase of the project would be a five-story, 36,000-square-foot building with 157 units for men, women, and families. Designed by architecture firm KFA, it would serve as “transitional” housing, with residences for participants in the 18-month training program. According to Vozzo, as many as 70 percent of Homeboy’s clients are at risk of becoming homeless.

“A key aspect to getting out of gang life is you’ve got to really leave your neighborhood,” said Vozzo, who before joining Homeboy almost nine years ago had a long career as a private-sector business executive. “So to get out of gang life you’re giving up your support network.”

Often, in the effort to cut past ties, Vozzo added, people leave their community and move in with a relative or friend, which could equate to couch surfing and housing instability. The aim with the residential project is to allow a trainee to have a job, then head to a nearby apartment, rather than return after work to a neighborhood replete with risk and temptation. He described it as a way to expand the safe space, or the “sanctuary,” afforded by Homeboy.

“When they go home at night, they’re going back to their gang territory. They’ve got to put on that, call it the armor, the tough look, the eyes. They gotta worry about who’s in the neighborhood, who’s coming after them,” Vozzo said. “So what we’re trying to do is extend that sanctuary they feel, that they can be confident in themselves during the day to the whole 24 hours. Just give somebody a sense of relief, so they can catch their breath, is really what people need to change their life around.”

The project has high aims, but that doesn’t make it any easier to get through the city of Los Angeles’ byzantine process of securing permits and approvals. That’s where Ratkovich comes in.

Ratkovich has been in the real estate game since 1977, and was behind mega-projects such as The Bloc, a $250 million transformation of a faded 1970s downtown complex into a massive mixed-use retail, office, and hotel effort, as well as the modernization of the high-rise at 5900 Wilshire. Additionally, he has had his hand in the renovation of historic gems, among them the Art Deco Oviatt Building on Olive Street and the Wiltern Theatre.

Ratkovich is helping Homeboy acquire the parking lot at the southeast corner of Alameda and Alpine streets from the city. He said Homeboy currently has an exclusive negotiating agreement on the site, with the aim to transfer ownership next year. He added that the hope is to break ground in 2022, with construction taking about one year.

“We are privileged to have Wayne’s real estate expertise and guidance while we plan our campus expansion with critically needed housing,” said Boyle. “There is no better friend to us than Wayne.”

Homeboy, like every person, business and nonprofit, was shaken by the pandemic. Vozzo said services were shut down in March 2020 as the city went into a near-lockdown, but some operations resumed a few months later when gang rehabilitation was declared an essential function. The past 18 months, he said, have brought surprising gains, as many people donated financially to Homeboy. However, there has also been gut-wrenching tragedy.

“We’ve lost over 24 of our folks who have been part of our program—not from COVID, but from gang violence, domestic violence, drug overdoses,” Vozzo said. “It’s been really hard on our community.”

Persevering through the pandemic has led to the current moment. Vozzo said for years he and Boyle have been discussing what Homeboy most needs in the future, with one suggestion being more space for services, and Boyle pushing for housing for trainees.

The presence of new board members familiar with real estate dealings, including Ratkovich and attorney O’Malley Miller, allowed them to go in that direction.

The project has a $1 million commitment from Richard and Melanie Lundquist. The aim is for Homeboy to raise at least $5 million, with the rest in debt financed in part through future rent payments.

It may be an unlikely pairing, the real estate veteran and the pioneering gang intervention program. But it is also a melding that, for Ratkovich, makes perfect sense in a modern Los Angeles facing a crushing housing crisis.

“I’ve had a good run in the real estate world, and much of the success I’ve had has been in the city of Los Angeles,” Ratkovich said. “But I’m more interested in the city than I am about any more real estate projects. I’ve had my fill of them.

“It doesn’t take long for one to listen to Greg Boyle and Tom Vozzo and reflect on the Homeboy history, which is a long history, to know this is a place where you might be able to do some good,” he said. “What I do know about real estate may be helpful in this instance. So that’s why I’m here.”

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