Saint of the Hood

With Homeboy Industries, Father Gregory Boyle has turned the nation’s gang capital into an unlikely place of redemption. Behind one of L.A.’s great stories of moral uplift lies a 25-year struggle between a priest’s unlimited compassion and a city’s harshest realities

Boyle bumping it with a Homeboy trainee in his office. Photograph by Damon Casarez

If Boyle was told about a fight, he would borrow the nearest bicycle, usually from a little kid, and approach the scene looking something like a Shriner on parade. The beach cruiser came later.  He’d sprint into the conflict, yelling and dropping F-bombs to part the sides. “It never felt heroic or weird,” Boyle says now. “It was always that kind of adrenaline. Lift the car, get out the grandmother. I didn’t fear a stray bullet, but you always have fear of rejection.”

Boyle managed to convince gangbangers that despite what they had done, they were made in the shape of God’s heart. You might give up on me, he told them, but I won’t give up on you. Boyle and neighborhood women began showing up at local factories and warehouses soliciting employment for gang members. The results were lackluster, and Boyle started handing out five- and ten-dollar bills for homies to do maintenance work around the church. In 1988, he launched his gang rehabilitation program as “Jobs for a Future.” The name held until 1992. The late film producer Ray Stark read an opinion piece by the priest in the Los Angeles Times and summoned Boyle to his office, asking how he could help. Boyle told Stark about a vacant bakery building across from his church. Stark bought the property, and that same year Boyle took over an abandoned tortilla-making machine from downtown’s Grand Central Market. He rechristened the newly diversified enterprise with the name gang members call each other: Homeboy.

Last year’s Los Angeles Film Festival marked the U.S. premiere of G-Dog, a documentary about Homeboy and Father Boyle by Academy Award-winning director Freida Lee Mock. The dramatic backbone of the film is a calamity known in Homeboy lore as “Black Thursday.” Mock’s cameras captured that April morning in 2010, when the entire staff gathered in the lobby of the headquarters and the priest, with tears in his eyes, told them that Homeboy was out of money and he had to lay everyone off. Black Thursday was the culmination of a long pattern of existential crises. The bakery alone was shuttered repeatedly during its first decade for want of funds—in 1994, 1995, and 1999, when an electrical fire swept through the front office and packaging area. It would take eight years for Boyle to raise $12.5 million for a new bakery and headquarters for Homeboy—with Stark and his wife, Fran, putting up $1 million.

G-Dog follows Boyle as the homies rally around him after Black Thursday, as Dr. Phil publicizes his ordeal on TV, as donations come pouring in. The nonprofit fixes its books and expands its businesses, and the documentary comes to its triumphant conclusion, with Homeboy looking stronger than ever.

It’s not looking that way now. Last fall Boyle had to lay off 70 trainees for lack of money, and at times there wasn’t enough petty cash for him to write the $50 checks to homies in need. Revenues from the bakery, the silk-screening plant, and the rest of the profit-making businesses account for about 40 percent of the total budget. Homeboy continues to rely mainly on contributions from foundations and individuals, and giving has dropped more than $2 million since the post-Black Thursday rescue. Government grants have been slashed by a third. What’s more, the organization doesn’t have an endowment fund, which might otherwise provide enough interest or investment income to guard against fluctuations in annual giving.

The economic downturn was partly to blame for Black Thursday. So was Homeboy’s new centrally located headquarters, the Fran and Ray Stark Center, which widened the applicant pool beyond Boyle Heights to all of Los Angeles County. Until Black Thursday, Homeboy was also imperiled by Boyle’s belief in a compassion that recognizes no boundaries, even the bottom line.

The writer-director Chris Weitz got to know Boyle while working on A Better Life, the 2011 film about East L.A. immigrants that was his follow-up to The Twilight Saga: New Moon. He now sits on Homeboy’s board. “Homeboy Industries is not a business model,” Weitz tells me. “A major part of it is informed by Father Greg’s belief, and there are aspects of that belief that are simply not negotiable for him. Some people might regard him as unrealistic, but if anyone was realistic coming into the gang situation, I think a lot of things that had happened at Homeboy simply wouldn’t have.”

“The beauty of Father Greg’s approach is eternal, unrelenting hopefulness for those young people,” says Robert Ross, president and CEO of the California Endowment. “The curse is that it’s terrible for the balance sheet of a nonprofit, and it really can wreak havoc. Most nonprofits function with a very clear sense that resources and dollars are a constraint. They turn people away, put them on waiting lists, and send them to other programs. The money dries up and so do the services—end of story.”

Former KB Home CEO Bruce Karatz played a central role in Homeboy’s post-2010 recovery, volunteering while under indictment for manipulating stock options. “My immediate focus,” Karatz says, “was to assure the institutions who were primary funders at Homeboy that it was serious about managing itself. And for a year and a half it was about ‘How does Homeboy do everything it could to exist—to balance expenses with revenues?’ ” Only then did Karatz divert his attention to getting chips and salsa into Ralphs, putting the Homeboy Diner at City Hall, and cementing a partnership that paved the way to last month’s grand opening of another Homeboy Diner at LAX. Today Homeboy is more professionally managed than at any other time during its history. Tom Vozzo, formerly a division president of the Aramark food service conglomerate, became the organization’s first CEO. Viktor Rzeteljski, who had been a partner at the financial services and auditing firm KPMG, is chairman of the board of directors.

This feature was originally published in the May 2013 issue of Los Angeles magazine.