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Page last updated at 10:47 GMT, Wednesday, 23 September 2009 11:47 UK

Gang-reforming bakery 'needs dough'

A worker at Homeboy Industries
Homeboy Industries sees 12,000 people come through its doors every year

By Claire Bolderson
BBC News, Los Angeles

The bakery at Homeboy Industries is spotlessly clean and runs like clockwork.

The supervisor, Louis Lula Rivera, walks quickly from ovens to packing table to mixing machines making sure everyone knows what they are doing.

He stops and patiently explains the oven temperature controls to recent recruit Art before listing all his new qualifications in food safety and preparation.

Louis Lula Rivera
Mr Rivera spent time in jail and is now the supervisor

Mr Rivera is clearly proud of them and of the fact he is in charge of 20 workers.

They all have something in common.

From Mr Rivera down, the men making bread rolls or pouring muffin mixture into baking trays are former members of Los Angeles' notorious gangs.

Art, recently released after a prison term for transporting Marijuana, rattles off his old gang's name when asked.

"East Side 213," he says.

Some of the bakery employees are former rivals who would have fought each other in the past if they had met on the street.

Now they work alongside each other, several sets of beefy tattooed arms lifting bags of flour and mixing the dough.

"It's a good feeling, we're all working together, making an honest living," Mr Rivera says.

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Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention programme in the US, has given them a new start in life.

But just as it is needed most, with the recession making it even harder for these young men to enter the formal jobs market, Homeboy is running out of money.

It was started by Father Greg Boyle in East Los Angeles in 1988.

He was tired of the violence that was wrecking whole neighbourhoods and taking too many young lives.

Father Greg, the founder
Gang members we've gotten jobs for in the private sector are the first to be laid off
Father Greg Boyle, Homeboy Founder

The Los Angeles County District Attorney's office says that more than 1,400 criminal street gangs exist in Los Angeles County.

Gang crimes range from graffiti to murder and extortion.

Homeboy Industries has since grown to include a silkscreen printing business, another that sells Homeboy merchandise and a solar panel fitting operation as well as the bakery.

Then there is the Homegirl cafe where young women with similarly troubled backgrounds serve fresh meals that include produce they have grown themselves.

The industries provide just a fraction of the jobs needed for the 12,000 people who walk through Father Greg's doors every year.

Eight thousand of them are gang members looking for the basic education, parenting classes and numerous counselling services that Homeboys provides.

Some come for free removal of the tattoos that mark them out as gang members.

But most importantly they come for jobs.

When it cannot directly provide those jobs itself, Homeboys tries to find them work in the private sector.

But with unemployment in California rising (it now stands at nearly 12%) the former gang members can not compete.

'Payroll to payroll'

The recession means there is now a pool of people looking for jobs who have got a good work history and plenty more to offer.

So as Father Greg sees it, "the employer is not going to choose the gang member who's just been released from prison, they're going to choose the person with the skills".

And worse, he says, "gang members we've gotten jobs for in the private sector are the first to be laid off, mainly because they haven't been there long enough or their skills aren't valuable enough."

So now they are coming back to Homeboys to ask for help.

Art, a new recruit at Homeboy
It is now harder for former gang members like Art to find work

Homeboy Industries is stretched to the limit trying to help them.

Forty per cent of the budget comes from private foundations and corporations and as Father Greg puts it, that money has evaporated in the recession.

"They [the donors] say, boy, we can't do it this year, probably not even next year," he says.

Trying to keep the place going at the moment is "a white knuckle ride. I don't sleep very much at night, we're just going from payroll to payroll," he says.

If Homeboys had to suspend its programmes he feels it would be disastrous not just for all the individuals who have turned their lives around but for the city and county as well.

"Because we really do release the steam on the pressure cooker which is the gang issue here in LA," Father Greg says.

Back in the bakery, 26-year-old new recruit Art agrees.

Why did he come to Homeboys ?

For his daughters, he says, and because he was "tired of putting my mom through all the dramas. I told my mom I'd change my life around just for them."

It will not be easy. Several of the men describe lives of drug and alcohol addiction.

To work in a Homeboys business they have to stay clean.

And they have to get on with former members of rival gangs.

Art says he knows that and he is determined the crime and violence of his youth are over.

"I put that behind me. We all of us here put that behind us," he says.



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