From Gangster to Homeboy

Homeboy Industries gives former criminals a second chance
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When most other 10-year-olds were riding bikes or playing video games, Jose Osuna was becoming a gangster.

Growing up in the height of the Los Angeles gang wars, Osuna had never known any other reality. This launched his 25-year stint as a member of one of Los Angeles County’s most vicious gangs, with 13 of those years spent behind bars. “I continued the cycle of violence behind the walls, so I spent about half of the 13 years that I was incarcerated in solitary confinement,” he says. After two and a half decades of crime, drugs and prison time, how does someone start over? For Osuna, it would take a tragedy—the gang-related death of his 17-year-old son.

Osuna started his journey to a new life where many do, at a 12-step meeting for overcoming addictions. He was sent there after being arrested for a drug offense, which would turn out to be his last. There he heard about Homeboy Industries, a Los Angeles-based organization that, rumor had it, would set up former gang members with jobs. Osuna was skeptical. “I didn’t have too much confidence in any organization that said they’d help somebody,” he says. “I really didn’t believe it. But once I walked in, it was a different story.”

Jose Osuna

Jose Osuna

He was used to seeing the same well-meaning but hopelessly clean-cut employees whenever he went somewhere for help. But at Homeboy, the people who wanted to help were often former gang members who’d done time themselves, and managed to turn things around. They shared an understanding of what life was like for Osuna, and they knew exactly how they could help.

Started in 2001, Homeboy Industries provides training and support for ex-gang members and those who’ve done time in jail. It was founded by Father Gregory Boyle, known endearingly as Father Greg among the Homeboy family. As a Catholic priest in the 1980s, Father Greg worked with the poorest communities in Los Angeles County and saw the devastating impacts of gang violence firsthand. He watched the hopeless cycle of violence and incarceration members of his community were stuck in.

But Father Greg envisioned a way to break the cycle of violence and endless prison sentences. He saw an opportunity to address the root causes of crime in at-risk communities by investing in treatment and education. He created a program called “Jobs for a Future” an organization that matched at-risk youth with education opportunities and employment, creating a reason to leave gang life behind. This laid the groundwork for what would eventually become Homeboy Industries.

Today, Homeboy offers services like parenting classes, tattoo removal and substance abuse support in an environment of understanding, respect and community. For more than 200 men and women at a time, Homeboy also offers full-time employment through an 18-month program with on-the-job training. Participants work in one of Homeboy Industries’ many social enterprises including catering, silk screening, or at its café located at Los Angeles City Hall. And many of the permanent jobs at Homeboy are filled by former clients, creating the peer model that Osuna says changed his life.

“The fact that it’s based in true peer-to-peer mentoring is what has led to the success of Homeboy,” he says. “That’s what attracted me, and honestly, that’s what’s kept me here.”

In the eight years since Osuna first walked through the doors of Homeboy Industries, he’s taken full advantage of the help available. He trained to become a certified solar panel installer and went on to oversee the program, helping dozens of his peers gain work experience and job prospects. His gang-related tattoos are fading thanks to ongoing removal treatments, and he got his GED with the help of a tutoring program. Osuna now holds the position of Director of External Affairs for Homeboy Industries, helping to bring the organization’s message of hope and opportunity to those who need it the most.

“I thought nobody was gonna give me opportunities,” Osuna reflects. “Don’t underestimate the compassion in people, and the resources and help that [are] out there.”

Although his story is an inspiration and he’s built an impressive resume through his work at Homeboy Industries, Osuna’s proudest achievement is his relationship with his teen daughter. After the heartbreaking loss of his son, he realized the need to break the cycle of gang involvement and set a positive example for the next generation of at-risk kids in L.A. His daughter is currently attending high school, and the two share car rides every morning and afternoon. “I love being involved in her life,” he says. “I want her to have someone to look up to.”

Lush proudly partnered with Homeboy Industries’ silkscreening and embroidery division to create exclusive canvas bags for in-store events supporting our Death ≠ Justice campaign.

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