A program aimed at giving once incarcerated at-risk women an alternative to repeating the patterns that had previously landed them in jail is proving to be a life altering experience for its participants, according to a recently released case study of the Homegirl Café social enterprise in Los Angeles.
Entitled Grow. Prep. Serve: Homegirl Café Case Study, the report examines the impact the recovery and reentry program has had on women who have participated in the unique program.
The Homegirl Café enterprise is a 12-month long non-profit program that trains formerly gang-related young women in restaurant service and the culinary arts, skills that can translate into job hiring opportunities. It is a multi-step program runs out of a state-of-the-art kitchen/restaurant facility located just south of Chinatown. The women are taken through the process of getting food from the growing stage to the cooking stage to the table in a real, open to the public restaurant setting. Like its Los Angeles-based parent organization, Homeboy Industries, Homegirl works to help those who want to leave the gang lifestyle behind reenter society “in a systemic and holistic way” so they can become contributing members of society.
“In-residence job training and employment is integral to the intervention program at HBI, succinctly expressed in the agency motto ‘Nothing stops a bullet like a job,’” according to the report.
While most intervention programs focus on male gang members, the Homegirl Café project focuses on women caught up in gang activity or who have spent time in jail. The case study reveals the complexities of the women’s lives, from having family members, sometimes parents, involved in gangs, or parents mostly absent from their lives either because they were working or taking care of other children, or parents who were in jail, chronic drug users or alcoholics, mentally ill or some combination of these factors, the study found. Physical and sexual abuse and neglect at an early age was almost universal, as was domestic violence.
Sixty women identified by the program’s management team were invited to take part in the study. They were told their participation was voluntary and were guaranteed confidentiality; 50 women, ranging from 20 to 37 years of age, agreed to be interviewed.
Thirty-seven of the women were Hispanic, 10 were African-American, two were Anglo and one woman described herself as “multi-racial.” All had been in the program for at least 6 months.
According to the report, “They had been convicted of criminal charges that included attempted murder, drug trafficking, and conspiracy to commit fraud.” Only 10 percent had graduated from high school. Sixty percent of those interviewed had children, and 80 percent of the women with children had their first child before the age of 18.
A workshop was held last week in Los Angeles to discuss the case study findings. It was an attempt to encourage other groups to duplicate the program’s success. Dr. Jorja Leap, Adjunct Associate Professor of Social Welfare, UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, and co-author of the study, pointed out the human side of the data contained in the study:
“As the UCLA students and the evaluation team chronicled the lives of these women, we all heard their stories of trauma and violence, struggles with public systems, love for their children, loss, adversity, and ultimately, resilience,” Leap said. She called the study and workshop “great ways to kick off a conversation around the role that business and nonprofit partnerships can play in addressing these challenges.”
The case study noted that many of the women grew up believing gang life was “inevitable.”
“You just couldn’t live where I lived and not join a neighborhood,” one woman told researchers. The gangs gave them a “feeling of belonging,” over half of the women said, with one explaining, “I’m not sure it was a feeling of belonging so much as a place to escape – another family to take the place of my family.”
For the women interviewed, wanting to change was important; getting services from Homegirl Café was critical to turning a desire into a plan of action.
Participant after participant echoed a common theme: Homegirl Café gave them a new, more stable family to replace the gang life. Homegirl staff repeatedly told them they could change their lives, could get an education, could get their children back, could stay out of jail.
It gave them hope.
The training at Homegirl, they said, was not just about learning a trade, but about becoming independent from the cycle of gangs and being in the “system.” It helped them develop positive relationships and to make healthier choices in all areas of their lives, from what they eat and cook, to where they choose to live.
“I feel like I’ve been in the County all my life. First foster care, then the halls and camps then County Jail. Then my kids got taken away by the County and they went into the child welfare thing. I thought it would never end,” one woman said of her experience growing up.
“But when I got to Homeboy and then I got into the Homegirl training program,” she said, “I started to feel like things were gonna be different.
“Now maybe the County and I – we could finally break up.”
To read Grow. Prep. Serve: Homegirl Café Case Study, in its entirety, visit http://www.calendow.org/uploadedFiles/HomeGirlCafe_Booklet.pdf