It was Stephanie Lane’s first day on the job as a waitress at Homegirl Café and the last thing she wanted to do was wait on the police.
The restaurant, staffed by female gang members trying to leave their past behind, is part of Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention program – and one of the most successful – in the U.S.
Quitting a life of drug dealing, fighting and stealing cars on the streets of South Los Angeles, where she followed her father and mother into the Crips gang, is not easy and now Lane faced the first of many tests: the police chief and top brass were growing impatient waiting for service.
“No girls wanted to take their order,” Lane says. “They’re the reason all of us have been through what we’ve been through.”
Lane glowered as she approached the table. She knew they’d be looking at her tattoos, sizing her up. She trained her eyes on her pad as she took their drink order. A hand suddenly grabbed her arm and the chief was looking at her.
“He says, ‘Smile!’
I said, ‘Why?’
‘Because I want a cup of coffee.’”
Two and a half years later, Lane, 21, smiles broadly as she recounts the story, masking her struggles.
The journey to set her life straight illustrates the difficulty of leaving gang life behind. She has been in fights, sent back to prison and shot multiple times. Each time, she returned to the cafe.
Father Gregory Boyle founded Homeboy two decades ago after working in a Roman Catholic parish caught in the middle of gang wars that were fueled in part by the crack cocaine epidemic. The program now provides employment, tattoo-removal, education, and mental health and legal counseling to around 15,000 people a year.
Lane grew up near Boyle’s parish and he’s known her since she was a child.
“We had shootings morning, noon, and night,” Boyle recalls. “She was in the generation that had a lot of babies who were placed by their mothers in bathtubs to avoid the bullets that would fly through the windows at night. It was a war zone.”
Lane’s mother would start fights and threaten people with guns. Her father was one of the most feared men in the neighborhood. Even as a little girl, Lane couldn’t wear red because it was the color of the rival Bloods. She wanted to be just like her parents. At age 11 she asked to join them in the East Coast Crips, a branch of one of the largest and most violent gangs.
“Growing up with my mother and father both being gang members and drug dealers, I was around a lot of money, I was always around guns, I was always around drugs. I was always around people getting drunk, or somebody getting beaten up,” she says. “Everything my dad did, everything my mother did, I always wanted to do better.”
The price of her devotion was repeated stints behind bars, starting at the age of 13. During her last sentence in a juvenile lockup, Boyle wrote a letter on her behalf that helped reduce her sentence. He offered her job at the café.
“When I first came to Homeboys it was hard,” she said. “There were Hispanics, there were blacks, and Chinese gangs, and all of us have to work together. I saw my enemies from different hoods, I saw girls I’d fought in jail and I thought: I’m not going to be able to do this.”
Learning to take orders from people and accept criticism was a challenge. She cussed at one of her bosses and challenged her to a fight. When work ended, she’d return to her old neighborhood, hang around with her fellow gangbangers and get in fights. One night she was shot three times.
Boyle turned up at the hospital with managers and waitresses from Homegirl Café. “She just burst into tears when I told her who was outside,” he says.
“Right then and there I realized this is not what I want to do any more,” she says. “Either I’m going back to jail or I have to switch the way I’m living.”
Since recovering from her wounds, she’s taken up boxing to channel her anger, waking up early to run each day and training with a coach on weekends.
“Now I look at gangs differently,” she maintains. “Now I feel like I’ve got too much to lose. Boxing keeps my head on straight and gets me back in shape. So I’m straight and I like it.”
Lane hopes to go into restaurant management. She has started an internship at Ciudad, an upscale restaurant in Los Angeles. She writes grant proposals for Homegirl Café’s organic garden, and is a favorite amongst the regulars there.
After her initial encounter with former Police Chief William Bratton, she waited on him every Tuesday morning.
Nothing is certain though, a point emphasized when she leaves work at the end of the week and her bosses admonish the waitresses to be careful.
“Weekends you never know who’s going to make it back on that Monday,” Lane says.
“When you’re here, it’s a blessing. It feels like paradise. But when you leave these two doors and you go home … you go back to your ‘hood, you go back to everything you’re trying to leave and it’s hard when you’ve got two feet out, but one foot back in. It’s real hard.”