‘Handing out gold’: how LA Homeboys are inspiring young Glaswegians to find purpose

While Los Angeles and Glasgow may be thousands of miles apart, many of the issues – gangs, poverty and adverse childhood experiences – are the same, argues the founder of a Glasgow project based on a US gang rehabilitation programme.

It’s standing room only at Homeboy Industries in downtown Los Angeles as people flood in for the daily 8.50am meeting at what’s been described as “the largest gang rehabilitation programme in the world”. 

It aims to offer opportunities to those previously denied them due to race, poverty or postcode, and a place in a community that understands the challenges they’ve faced in the past. 

The organisation was founded 35 years ago by Father Gregory Boyle at a time when police heralded LA as the gang capital of the USA and his parish, in the city’s Boyle Heights, was at the eye of the storm. 

Back then the Californian city was still associated with the infamous Crips and Bloods, with an estimated 450 gangs connected to drug trafficking and gun violence operating across the city. Police records from 1989 show there were 1,113 drive-by shooting incidents that year alone. But while police saw criminals Father Greg saw people in need of help. 

Violent crime has fallen dramatically since those days and there is a greater understanding of the racialised and disproportionate policing of poor Black and Latino communities. But in the same period income inequality has increased and so have drug deaths – fentanyl overdose deaths increased 1,652 percent from 109 in 2016 to 1,910 in 2022. So Homeboy’s reputation for offering transformational change means there’s no slowing in the numbers pushing open the doors of its glass fronted building at 130 West Bruno Street. 

'Handing out gold': how LA Homeboys are inspiring young Glaswegians to find purpose 6
Father Gregory Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries. Image: Homeboy Industries

Today the LA reception area is a hubbub of high energy and high fives. “Hope has an address” is another Homeboy slogan, and that’s where participants of this programme are gathered, looking to heal from the trauma of their past, and wearing box-fresh trainers.

The Homeboy approach – and its eye-catching results – caught the attention of Scotland’s Violence Reduction Unit (SVRU), founded in 2005 by Strathclyde Police. The Scottish unit took a public health approach to reducing violence in Glasgow, then the knife crime capital of Europe

But though LA and Glasgow may be thousands of miles apart, the SVRU is not the only project to notice similarities. Now G20 Works – in the deprived Wyndford estate in north west Glasgow – has turned to Homeboy Industries for inspiration. Its aim is to make the Californian gang project meaningful in Maryhill.

Each day starts in the same way at Homeboy. At this morning’s meeting, there’s a rundown of today’s groups and activities and an update on the achievement of some of the trainees on the group’s 18-month programme. About 900 men and women pass through it each year (a more or less 50/50 gender split), most with years’ experience of gang violence, drugs and prison.

Day programmes vary depending on people’s needs. There is mental health and substance use support, education programmes and gang affiliation tattoo removal, as well as legal assistance, anger management and parenting classes. Alongside that there is training at Homeboy Industries’ social enterprises – including a bakery, a bustling cafe, and electronics recycling – helping them make the move into work. Many of the former trainees become employees for the organisation.

Hector Verdugo, the organisation’s executive director

They include Hector Verdugo, now the organisation’s executive director, who first met Father Greg when he was 14 years old in juvenile hall – prison for under-18s – serving time for carjacking.

His story has echoes of many here. “I didn’t know any men who were a good influence growing up,” he explains. His own father died a week before he was born of a heroin overdose and he learned to distrust the men his mother, also a heroin user, was involved with. 

“I’m not Catholic and I didn’t care about priests. But Father Greg was different,” he explains. Verdugo thought him impressive, enjoyed the encounter but didn’t then didn’t see him again for 15 years.

Instead he rose through the gang ranks, got involved in drug dealing and gun violence, until there came a moment of reckoning. “There was a point where I woke up and thought: ‘what am I doing with my life?’ My grandfather was a gangster, my father was a gangster, now I’m a gangster…this has got to stop.”

Like many of those on the programme now, he dropped out of school as a young teen with no qualifications. When he first came to Homeboy he remained guarded, observing. “And I came to a realisation – this place is handing out gold. We came here for fresh water and there’s a well right here and it isn’t going to go dry. So then I decided to drink. That’s when things started to change.” People saw leadership skills in Verdugo and he was rapidly promoted. Those running Homeboys trust people like him, he says. “They see us.”

Homeboy Industries is now a blueprint for over 250 organisations and social enterprises not only across the USA but in countries from Guatemala to Sweden.

Maryhill’s G20 Works is the latest organisation to borrow directly from the US approach.

Emily Cutts is the centre manager. at G20 Youth project in Maryhill. Image: Angela Catlin

On the day we visit G20 Works in the Wyndford estate the sky is grey and sullen, a stark contrast to the sun-soaked streets of LA. But the issues facing the community here – from childhood trauma to poverty and postcode-based discrimination –  are the same, insists G20 Works founder, Emily Cutts. 

“Many of the young people we work with have been stabbed or bottled,” she says. “One young person we have been working with has had a gun to his head, another two have had relatives shot dead. On just one day in this community there were two drug deaths and a young person in a coma due to drugs.” The Scottish Ambulance Service recorded 174 near fatal overdoses from January 2019 to June 2022 for the G20 postcode.

Many of the young people here have been working with Cutts for years. She first founded a project called the Children’s Wood in a nearby, affluent area of North Kelvinside eight years ago. In response to the lack of options for those from the Wyndford estate she then set up the G20 Youth Festival, a vibrant youth club for under 16s.

But when they came of age, many having dropped out of school without qualifications or experience of work, they started to fall through the cracks. G20 Works was an attempt to catch them. “We never give up on anyone,” she explains.

The project was piloted a year ago, but relaunched last month with its own community hub after securing funding to renovate a dilapidated building in the midst of a small row of shops on the estate. Its daily activity programme is supplemented by training and work opportunities at its social enterprises including a cafe selling coffees and homemade pizzas.  

There are plans for a nail bar and barber’s chair with longer term dreams of an outdoor ranger programme. Additional funding would add an alcohol and drug worker, along with counselling sessions.

“This place gives you something to do, keeps me out of trouble.”

Alex, trainee at G20 Works

At the launch of the project’s car wash and valeting service, 18-year-old trainee Alex tells me G20 Works gives them a sense of purpose. “At school I was always getting suspended and then I got kicked out,” they said. “I don’t feel like the teachers knew how to talk or to listen.” By 14 or 15 they had left without qualifications. Drugs and then dealing started to come into the picture and criminal charges followed, as well as time in Polmont Young Offender Institute

“Once you start getting heavy convictions the police start stopping you all the time,” they explained. “So that gave me a good excuse to get out of all that and spend more time here.” It’s going well. “This place gives you something to do, keeps me out of trouble.”

Scott, another car valet trainee, has also found new opportunities here. “I was dyslexic so I struggled at school,” he says. He was excluded at just 13 years old. “I don’t mind being asked what to do but I don’t like being told if you know what I mean,” he says by way of explanation. “And teachers don’t ask.” At G20 Works he’s also completed health and safety training and only this week got his first scaffolding job as a result, which he’ll combine with college.

But just how needed is a project like this? Research shows youth crime is down dramatically. One study following 4,300 young people born in 1986/87 found two out of ten were carrying a knife at 14 years old and 70 per cent committed some sort of offence as a teen. A second study following 5,200 people born in 2004/5 showed that only two per cent of them were carrying a knife by the same age and only 30 per cent committing any offences as teens. 

But researchers have warned of complacency, with poverty and negative childhood experiences still closely linked to offending and there are worries about funding. This summer YouthLink Scotland’s member survey also showed a looming crisis in the sector with 50 percent of youth workers reporting “severe cuts to funding”.

Iain Corbett, a participation advisor for Children and Young People’s Centre for Justice (CYCJ) claims the combination of cuts to young services and the cost of living crisis is putting families under increasing pressure, making progress fragile. “We are hearing more about the increase in street gangs again,” he says.

He is worried those cuts mean youth services are short-term and goal orientated, putting off those seeking something that looks different from school.  “As a result, the young people at most risk of being criminalised are no longer accessing youth work services,” he says. “A project like G20 which takes youth work values – coupled by the ethos of somewhere like Homeboy – is quite unique.”

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Alex is training in car valet services. Image: Angela Catlin

Karyn McCluskey, chief executive of Community Justice Scotland, has been an admirer of Homeboy for decades and agrees that that approach of healing in community is something that people right across Scotland could benefit from.

She believes there’s already much to celebrate in the strides Scotland has taken to reducing youth offending and its approaches to it. On the day we speak, she says, just two under-18s are in Polmont Young Offenders Institution, compared to 56 at the same time five years ago.

But while McCluskey understands the pressures that lead to cuts to youth services, she claims they are fool hardy. “It’s very easy in this climate to make budget cuts that retreat to what are considered core services,” she says. “But in terms of money you either pay now or you pay later.

“We need to remember that very often organisations like G20 Works – and all the others across Scotland doing brilliant work – are all that are standing between a young person and the justice system.”

Main image: Homeboy Industries

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