Former LA gang members teach journalists and doctors about the value of second chances

Published on
July 14, 2022

Maria, 17, knew that gang members lived on her block, but she didn’t feel unsafe. That changed in a flash this week. She and her sister were driving on their home street and heard gunshots. Suddenly, she noticed ringing in her left ear.

She reached for her aching ear and blood gushed down her arm. She’d been hit. Her sister drove her to Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where I was one of her doctors. (Her full name is not being used to protect her identity.)

The bullet entered her scalp and fractured a skull bone, but amazingly it didn’t penetrate her brain.

She wasn’t involved in gangs, yet their bullet found her. 

That same morning Maria was shot, I heard Father Greg Boyle tell a group of reporters that gang violence is “really a public health issue,” and society needs to use the right words for the problems to find solutions.

He was talking to a group of journalists with USC Center for Health Journalism National Fellowship on a sunny morning in the bustling, noisy courtyard of Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles. Boyle is the founder of Homeboy Industries, a gang intervention organization that offers programs to help gang members navigate a path out of a life of violence and trauma.

Since 1988, Boyle has walked with the “homies,” short for homeboys or close friends from the same neighborhood, in some of the toughest gang areas of Los Angeles. Although Boyle looks a bit like Santa Claus with his white beard, rosy cheeks and round belly, the mostly Black and Latino clients he works with embrace him as their homie. He makes a practice of welcoming everyone without judgment.

Nationwide, about 2% of youth have a gang affiliation, according to a 2015 report. The average age of joining a gang is 15, though some are 12 or younger. By 11th grade, approximately 3.6% of Angeleno teens have a gang affiliation, but that number is doubled for teens in non-traditional settings, such as continuation and vocational schools.

Homeboy Industries is the largest gang intervention organization in the world, and they have shared their “smart on crime” model across the globe, which emphasizes investing and intervening in the lives of those caught in gangs.

Homeboy Industries offers programs or referrals for a range of services that help gang members transform their lives. The list includes tattoo removal, professional therapy, housing assistance and job training at Homeboy’s T-shirt screening business and Homegirls Bakery and Café, as well as with other businesses.

Most importantly, though, Homeboy Industries offer kinship and acceptance, according to three former gang members also speaking with the journalists. Boyle believes anyone with a pulse can embrace another’s “unshakable goodness.”

“We see them and a lot of times they’re not seen,” said Eugene Walker, a former gang member who described working with newcomers seeking tattoo removal. Walker is now the supervisor of the tattoo removal program.

He said when gang members come for tattoo removal they are greeted warmly and respectfully. After a few visits they start to open up and seek help.

Walker said he was released from prison in 2011 and it took nearly three years to remove all of his tattoos. The laser treatments are done every six to eight weeks by a team of volunteer doctors.

“It’s more than tattoos removed, it’s the stigma carried with them,” said Walker.

Salvador Chacon, 42, a former gang member with history of incarceration, shared his life path.

“I grew up in the gutter. My mom and dad were gang members. That’s all we seen,” said Chacon.

At age 5, he and his siblings were placed in a foster home where they were mistreated. He ran away as soon as he was big enough and joined a gang.

“I got all tatted up. I wanted to scare everybody out because I was scared on the inside. I had to put on this persona that I was the roughest and toughest, but in here (pointing to his heart) I was hurting … All that trauma catches up with you.”

“I’s a different person now,” said Chacon, “Homeboys saved my life.”

He said Homeboys helped he get a job, an apartment, be a role model for his children and go to Disneyland. “That was my dream come true. I said to myself, ‘I could die now. I’m happy.’ But now I want to live more,” Chacon said.

Boyle said gang violence is not about conflict. “It’s about a lethal absence of hope,” he said.

“Address the despair and watch what happens to the violence.”

Gangs offer disenfranchised youth somewhere to belong, a “street family.” They can also offer protection, a perception of self-confidence and a sense of belonging, despite the fact that most are involved in criminal activity.

Patricia Gomez, now in her 30s, spoke of her childhood filled with trauma, including abuse since age 6, alcoholism, substance use and incarceration.

“I was born into a very violent home and grew up in a dysfunctional home,” said Gomez.

By age 10, she was on the streets. Her first attempted murder was at age 14 against her older sister, which landed her in juvenile hall. That was where she met Father Boyle. She spent the next 20 years in the system. She was paroled in January 2022 and joined Homeboy.

When gang members join Homeboy’s 18-month program, they are asked to give up their street name and go by the name given to them by their parents. Gomez said that meant that she was no longer “Sweets.” But it was a chance to get to know Patricia, which she hadn’t been called for 20 years.

Gomez participates in therapy, anger management and other classes, and has graduated from high school. She is the first in her family to do so, and is now a college student.

This is not my first visit to Homeboy Industries, but each visit fills me with fresh ideas to help. They are a valuable resource for my patients, and I have talked about their programs with families for whom I suspected gang involvement.

After my latest visit this week, I told Maria, the teen who was shot, about Homeboys. She isn’t in a gang but has been traumatized by gang violence. Perhaps learning about gang involvement and coping with trauma can help her heal.