Homegirl Heroes: Former Gang Members and Inmates May Be Making LA’s Best Blueberry Pancakes

Homegirl Cafe looks like any other busy organic pit stop in Los Angeles. The tables are filled with families and office workers noshing on staples like chilaquiles or mango upside-down cornbread. Something’s a little different here, though — take the servers’ face tattoos, the Radical Kinship t-shirts, the seamless energy of the entire staff. There’s a palpable sense of pride here. 

Sit down with Arlin Crane, who’s been head of Homeboy Industries’ social outreach for six and a half years, and you can begin to see why. Homeboy has an amazing rehabilitation program that works, and maybe that’s why their social enterprises are growing like crazy — so fast and profitable that it’s hard to keep up. 

“We now have the cafe and catering and a production grab-and-go line. The bakery’s expanding too—someone donated a gluten-free bakery so we’re training people there—and then there’s the commerce and product line for the holidays. We ship cookies and cakes, everything organic and made from scratch, from the beginning of Thanksgiving all the way through Christmas,” she tells me.

Crane speaks quickly, as if there’s so much more to do, but also with the intensity that comes from knowing she’s making a dent in a vicious cycle. “I was an executive chef at Whole Foods Market, I worked corporate and numbers, and I came here for three months and had no intention of staying. I had no idea who Father G was (that’s Father Greg Boyle, founder of Homeboy Industries)…but now I can’t imagine doing anything else. I have a hundred employees, some that have been with me for six years, and some that have been with me three months, and I feel like a giant mom,” she said. 

The dining room’s closing up, her workers are stacking chairs, putting food away, and cleaning floors in a productive din as we talk. She tells me about the sixty-five-year old who just got out after twenty years inside. She’s teaching him not only how to work in a restaurant, but how to read and write as well. 

Crane explains, “as much as you’re teaching them job skills, you’re also on their journey, and I think the coolest part about being here is that you’re constantly getting new people, and then you also get to watch the ones that you’ve mentored mentor other people…they’re allowing you into their lives to say, ‘okay, help me… and love me unconditionally’ and that’s what we do…It’s hard, but it’s amazing work.”

Homegirl Cafe is more than a restaurant, because of its staff. The road to recovery starts on the other side of the building in Homeboy Industries. As Crane tells me, sometimes when she gets to work, the lobby is full of people straight out of prison because Homeboy’s specialty is reentry. Father G visits at-risk teens, gang members, and inmates in juvenile halls, prisons, jails, and probate programs, letting people know that Homeboy is there to help and, more often than not, it’s the first and best stop when they get out.

“We have people who are lifers,” Crane said. “Some who went in at fourteen and are now thirty-four…They went through the juvenile system and they don’t have any life skills, as well as having so much trauma…. we have three or four right now — you can’t see in jeans — who are on ankle monitors. And I have people who meet me from federal parole, who are working on federal cases. We also have juveniles as well as adults coming over, so it’s a big mix and that’s unique about Homeboy.” 

Father Greg’s special passion is gangs and—amazingly—the organization has engaged with 120,000 gang members so far with another 10,000 coming through the program each year. As he says, Homeboy is trying to give them “an exit ramp off the freeway of violence, addiction, and incarceration.” 

Homeboy’s radical approach is many-faceted and starts with an eighteen-month program that includes individual, couple, substance abuse, and art therapy, as well as legal advice, case management, tattoo removal, and job placement. They also consider education to be an integral part of the program and, in addition to a core curriculum of life skills, personal development, wellness, vocational, and court-mandated free classes, there’s a partnership with Learning Works Charter School in Pasadena, so exiting inmates can, if necessary, earn their GED. Most importantly, they treat former gang members as human beings.

“They come into the program to heal,” Crane tells me. “And then they come over to Social Enterprise (at Homegirl Cafe) usually at the nine-month mark…they’re paid from the moment they’re hired, we’re very unique that way. We pay you to work on yourself because when you come out of jail, the first thing you need is a paycheck otherwise you’re not going to make it… if you don’t have that you are going to look at reoffending or using. You could end up on Skid Row or anywhere else because you’re not going to have somewhere to live…at Homeboy, we’re also unique because in prison you can be hooked up with different gangs or different races, but here we blend you. For instance, here there are people whose supervisor was their enemy. We just throw you together.”

I ask: so sometimes kids who were in enemy gangs find themselves side by side honing their knife skills on vegetables and planning a menu together? 

“Yes,” Crane says. “Social Enterprise is so much more than just a plate of food. It’s being able to see people who would harm each other now working at a pace in a restaurant that’s getting tense, and they’re learning how to just breathe and get through it…they’re putting their effort and their ownership in the food and, in the process, breaking the stigma,” she continues, “to know that you get to break even one cycle, that brings me to tears.”

The future is exciting too, especially because in addition to the gluten-free branch of the bakery and the diner at CITY HALL (www.lacity.org) , there’s a groundbreaking cafeteria style eatery that will be on the ground floor of the Kenneth Hahn Hall of Administration, home of the LA County Supervisors. It’s mind-blowing that the same civil servants who just voted to replace the crumbling and notorious Men’s County Jail will now be served a meal by some of its former inmates. It’s all about giving high-risk former gang members and inmates a second chance, when some of them never even had a chance to begin with. It’s also about establishing a support system, a therapeutic environment and, most importantly, securing jobs so they can have a real shot at succeeding and moving forward. 

Crane tells me, “When you see… the light bulb start to flutter, and they’re getting it, it’s bigger than a plate of tacos. It’s seeing the neighborhood come together, and someone who would maybe be wanting to harm you start being able to work with you and call you brother.” 

She checks her watch because she really has to move on but, before she goes, she says, “One less person is going to be hurt by making tacos or pouring coffee and it’s just that simple. Food can break so many boundaries.”


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