May 08, 2015

Photo Essay: No Place Like Homeboy (Updated for 2018)

Last updated 5/18/18 6:35 PM PT

I always seem to be struggling between two sides of my personality and intellect: spiritual versus rational, creative versus scientific, high-brow versus low-brow, masculine versus feminine, virgin versus whore. In my professional life, I'm somewhat equally both a capitalist and a philanthropist – two things which don't always go together. But I believe that there is a way to make money and still support social change, not only because it feels good and it's the right thing to do. The non-profit, cause-related world can learn a lot from the for-profit sector, retain their integrity, and use it for the greater good.

That's the dream, anyway.

So when planning an event for my job as field agent for Atlas Obscura, I was really excited to assemble a group of curious adults to tour Homeboy Industries, makers of the most popular items in the Ralph's deli department, locally-made chips and salsa. It held all the promise of a factory tour and garden tour and delicious eats, but also the opportunity to spend some money and patronize a business that's making LA a better place.

Homeboy is unique because it's a rehabilitation program for ex-cons and former gang members that not only provides community support and services like tattoo removal, but it puts them to work in real jobs where they can learn skills like baking bread, silkscreening, gardening, and, in the case of our tour guides, public speaking. As one "homeboy" said, "Where else would I be paid to improve myself and get my life together?"

There's not exactly that much to see at Homeboy's headquarters in Downtown LA, right next to the Chinatown Metro station. It's a large building full of offices and meeting rooms. But more importantly, it's full of a lot of heart.

Homeboy is the people who run it, who are surviving hardships, recovering from addictions, and overcoming financial, social, racial, and even medical obstacles as we speak. And they are supported by others who have gone through some of the same things, who understand their struggles without judging them or treating them like an outsider. Even if they were incarcerated for crimes like carjacking and selling drugs.

Horrible things can happen to anybody.

And sometimes they relapse. They fall back in with their old gangs. They falter in their sobriety. They start to doubt themselves. But the most important thing is this: Homeboy welcomes them when they're ready to come back.

It's amazing how vulnerable these homeboys and homegirls are willing to be in front of a group of strangers, especially after having to be tough on the streets for so long. But they know it's part of their recovery. And sharing their stories can help others in countless ways. Our tour guide Kendra touched me in ways she'll never understand. I've got a forever place in my heart for her.

But what can I possibly do? I'm just an event planner and a writer.

In this case, I could introduce 30 people to Homeboy Industries.

Because of me, 30 people bought jams and salsas and granolas and breads and pastries to bring home and share with their friends and families.

Thirty people sat together in the Homegirl Cafe for lunch, drinking cucumber juice...

...nibbling on those delicious chips...

...and tasting ingredients from Homeboy's own gardens beautifully prepared in salads...

...sandwiches (with housemade ciabatta, of course), and tacos.

I also could use proceeds from ticket sales to buy 30 recycled tote bags, turning each attendee into a roving billboard for Homeboy.

Sure, they can use monetary donations, but I don't have any money of my own to give now. So I'll throw some business their way.

When I went to pick up the tote bags, they invited us back for a tour of the silkscreen shop after we'd finished our tour and lunch at headquarters.

Of course, this is the stuff I really wanted to see – like the machine that "burns" the design into the screens...

...the screens themselves...

...and all those colorful inks.

There are so many inks –hundreds of colors – but if someone requests a color they don't already have, they can probably make it.

This type of ink requires to be heat-set in order to dry, which means the globs can sit out in the open for weeks and not evaporate or dry.

The screened t-shirts – both their own and those they have been hired to print by third parties – are then put on a conveyer belt through a dryer that's like a giant version of those toasters that heat the sandwiches at Quizno's.

The shop can also take on embroidery projects, thanks to a giant computerized sewing machine...

...that can execute any design programmed into it, as long as you hit the right buttons and hold the fabric in place with a green metal ring.

They can even embroider smaller items like neckties.

And there are nearly as many varieties of colored threads as there are inks, with shelves upon shelves filled with spools of hues, shining from dark to light.

The best part was meeting our tour guide, Edgar, who turned out to be the silkscreen artist who had made our tote bags. We kind of ambushed him when we arrived, but he managed to speak over the whir of the dryer and show us every crevice of the shop, a bit bashful at its simplicity. He didn't want to bore us, but we were fascinated with the shop, and charmed by him.

He said he didn't know how to give a tour, which is actually what made the tour so great. He didn't have a script, so he had no choice but to speak from the heart.

Update: In May 2018, I had the chance to tour Homeboy's Electronics Recycling, an R2-certified facility that takes responsible recycling seriously.

Of course, since only about half of most electronics is actually recyclable (and a lot of individual parts are just trash), the more sustainable idea is actually to figure out a way to reuse the item.

That's why a lot of the focus at Homeboy is on refurbishing and reselling (either in their own store, online via eBay or other resellers, or through third parties) or renting. (Turns out there's quite a market in Hollywood for old TVs.)

Sometimes, the stuff they get is already in pretty good shape. It's amazing how people just throw stuff out—even if it's brand new and in the box.

And likewise, there are so many parts out there that are perfectly good and get wasted or replaced for no good reason. I suppose the same goes for people. Sometimes a newer model is more desirable, but inexplicably so.

Unlike Homeboy headquarters (and Homegirl Cafe), Homeboy Recycling doesn't just focus on ex-cons and ex-gang members. It also employs homeless or just out of homelessness and folks somewhere on the autistic spectrum—the "unemployable" by other companies' standards. And besides, not everyone with a record is a career criminal. Any of us could get picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and have to deal with a permanent blemish as a result.

It felt like kismet that I was there today—because as we were wrapping up our tour, I turned around and spotted a refurbished Sanyo turntable, Model TP-1010, circa 1975-1978. I'm pretty sure my father, a certified audiophile, had something similar.

I already have a Technics turntable circa 1998 from J&R that has always been a more basic model than I've wanted—and, after moving it at least four times, could use a new belt and a new motor and definitely needs a new stylus and cartridge. All of that would've cost me more than the $175 I paid for this turntable that's been returned to its original vintage condition—which is better than what I could've gotten in the late 1990s when vinyl was passé and turntables weren't that easy to find.

Even today, I could surely get a brand-new turntable cheaply for less than $200, but if I wanted the quality I'm getting in this refurbished model, I'd have to pay upwards of $500 to $1000.

Besides, I wouldn't get the satisfaction of supporting a very unique business whose mission aligns with my own personal values.

And that's getting harder and harder to find.

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