March 12th, 2010
11:34 PM ET

Homicide in Hollenbeck: Helping gang members break away

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2010/images/03/12/gregory.boyle.profile.jpg caption="Father Gregory Boyle is the founder of Homebody Industries." width=292 height=320]

Stan Wilson
CNN Producer

In Hollenbeck, breaking away from the gang life can be more difficult than getting into it. But, there is treatment available. At Homeboy Industries, thousands of troubled young men and woman have made that transition out of gang life.

The agency was founded by Father Gregory Boyle, a Catholic priest. It provides counseling, job training, and also free tattoo removal. To broaden his outreach, Boyle recently moved into a centralized location near downtown Los Angeles and opened a full service restaurant and bakery.

Instead of demonizing gangsters, Father Boyle embraces them, regardless of their past. He says it has allowed him to reach out to more young people at risk. “This place is soaked with a sense of redemption,” said Boyle. “I have several of them who, not that you write off but, in your head you toy with the idea that I’m not sure he’s ever going to be able to steer this thing in another direction and low and behold they do.”

Each year, the agency also places hundreds of gang members in private sector jobs. When Father Boyle came to Hollenbeck as a parish priest 25 years ago he was stunned by the level of violence. “My first kid I buried in 1988 had been stabbed to death and took the scales off my eyes,” he said.

While police approached gang activity as a law enforcement issue, Father Boyle approached gang violence in terms of mental health and preparing them with basic job skills. “Jobs not Jails” became his agency’s motto, Homeboy Industries became his ministry.

But Boyle’s relentless effort to help young people stay out of gang life has been a long, difficult task. Five years ago, Richard Moya, a 32-year-old former gang member who, at age 5, saw his father gunned down by a rival gang, was a full-time employee at Homeboy Industries and seemed to be on a path toward stability. Although Moya says he no longer associates with a gang, five years later, he finds himself struggling again by washing cars and recycling to earn money. He’s been shot six times. “So you’re 32-years-old," asked CNN’s Anderson Cooper. “32-years-old.” "And you’ve been shot six times?" “Six times.” “Does that make you really lucky or really unlucky?" “I would say for the fact unlucky that I have to deal with the pain. But lucky that I’m alive today,” he said.

While Father Boyle continues offering financial assistance to Moya, the statistics of staying away from violence are staggering. In September, Father Boyle buried his 168th homicide victim.

Moya, a father of four boys, told Cooper he hopes to avoid following his father’s footsteps. “Do you want them to have the kind of life that you’ve had?, " asked Cooper. “No. That’s why I been out of prison, and discharged my parole number for six years now, going on seven. But no matter what steps you walk up, there’s always gonna be somebody to try to knock you down.”, Moya said. "Do you think you’ll make it to 40?, " Cooper asked. “I can’t make any promises. The only thing is I hope my sons see me before 40, I really do,” Moya replied.

Moya’s struggle is emblematic of the challenges of transforming the lives of hard core gangsters. But Father Boyle says progress takes time and commitment. He is convinced that long term treatment at Homeboy Industries is a worthy investment. A model, he says, that saves thousands of lives.

“What does that say about the difficulty of leaving gang life?" Cooper asked Father Boyle. “We always say around here, don’t get in that car, don’t go to that place. You hear a lot around here where they’ll say ‘for the first time in my life I’m afraid of dying’. For the first time in their life, they’re connected to the stuff that makes life meaningful. And has a purpose. Whereas before, they had no concern, no fear about being killed because they had nothing to lose,” said Boyle.

Filed under: Hollenbeck • Homicide in Hollenbeck
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