Homies Unidos: A beacon of hope for “at-risk” youth in Pico-Union

By Vanessa Castaneda
April 7, 2021

PICO UNION, CA- There is no better way to obtain a heart of gold than to give back to the community. That is the goal the members of Homies Unidos strive to do on a regular basis.

According to Alex Sanchez, the director of the Homies Unidos organization in Los Angeles, the goal is to give back to the community that had been burned by the wrath and pain through violence that one has caused.

Sanchez stated 90% of the members are Latino, and about 75% of them are from Central America. Though there are others with a different ethnic background, the heavy involvement of Central Americans stem back to a few decades ago.

The History

Photo of the Homies Unidos organization in El Salvador in 1996. Photo courtesy of homiesunidos.org,

Homies Unidos was created in 1996 primarily by Central American former gang affiliates who experienced deportation from Los Angeles, to back in their homeland in El Salvador. Rival neighborhoods came together to help change their ways of life, and to assist others associated in the cycle of violence who share a common desire: peace and growth.

The El Salvador organization was then brought to Los Angeles in 1998 by Sanchez, where it currently holds a facility on Beverly Boulevard and Alvarado Street.

The organization served as a place for primarily Central American immigrants, those who were criminalized, had involvement in gangs. or wanting a sense of involvement with others who share a similar story.

Beneficial Programs

There are several programs within the organization that would benefit many in the community who feel that they do not have a voice. Sanchez opens the opportunities to everyone who may need a helping hand.

A few of the programs offered are the Gang Intervention Project, which consists of positive group activities. Just recently, the group spent the day at Six Flags Magic Mountain.

Jaime Martinez, the community organizer for Homies Unidos expressed his gratefulness for the organization. “I was in prison at one time, ” said Martinez, “I did 31 years of my life. I was 17 years old when I went in, and got out in 2013 at the age of 48. And I took it upon myself to be apart of this organization, doing it for 20 years.”

There are also re-entry programs for individuals who have spent some time in prison, and are in need of resources, such as paperwork, to start their new life.

Martinez also mentioned a program called “Freedom With Dignity”. where the team helps family who have loved ones in prison.

“I did 31 years of my life. I was 17 years old when I went in, and got out at age 48. I took it upon myself to be a part of this organization.”

Jaime Martinez, Community Organizer for Homies Unidos

One of the most cherished programs in the organization is the Epiphany Project, where individuals and parents can take the necessary steps toward a more productive and successful life.

As an incentive to complete the course, non-active gang members are given the opportunity to undergo a cosmetic journey to remove the visible tattoos, to embark a fresh start in society.

Back in March of 2020, the pandemic was on the rise: many lost their jobs, unemployment rates were at its highest, and individuals in the community were struggling.

At that moment, the organization launched their Community Response Initiative (TRI), which continues to help others in the community obtain fresh produce and other necessities that are difficult to come by.

The team rents out a U-Haul truck to hold all the products for their food distribution.

Items that are given out are fresh fruits, vegetables, baby food, juice, bread, paper towels, disposable masks, and much more.

According to the administrative assistant of Homies Unidos, Fredid Toledo, the food distribution occurs every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday.

The information of their event is posted on their social media platforms such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and even on their Homies Unidos website.

“The fact that there are people who wait in line for hours for food shows that they are in need,” said Sanchez, as he discussed the feedback for their food distribution

Latinos in the community with reusable bags and baskets who are waiting in line for the Homies Unidos Food Distribution on May 5, 2021 outside of Los Comales Salvadoran Restaurant in Los Angeles. Photo Courtesy of Vanessa Castaneda

The times are frequently changing, but Homies Unidos strives to accommodate to the current events. An example is offering a program that helps Central American immigrant youths who are new to the States and are in need of getting situated.

Words From Alex Sanchez

Though he has accomplished so much and has received prestigious awards, including the Drum Major Award from the Martin Luther King Legacy Association, he shines a light on the fact that the title “former gang member” will always follow.

In the following podcast with Sanchez, he explains that a person has the ability to make necessary changes in order to obtain a better and more productive lifestyle.

Podcast With Alex Sanchez, who highlights the origins of the organizations and discusses personal experiences with his past involvements in the streets of Los Angeles. Be sure to tune in and listen to his great advice to anyone who may need to hear it. “Don’t wait until it’s too late”. Created using Headliner.

Sanchez also describes his experiences growing up and how the lack of resources had negatively impacted his life choices, which eventually lead him down a different path.

His past experiences encouraged himself and others to create an organization like Homies Unidos, so other youths could be given a chance to see the positive route.

According to Sanchez, an individual may seek joining a gang when they do not know what other options are out there.

He compares this idea to those who consider drug addiction, dealers, prostitution, etc.

“Don’t wait until it’s too late…look us up. We’ll be here.”

Alex Sanchez- Executive Director, Homies Unidos

Who Is Really to Blame?

Dr. Steven Osuna, an assistant professor from California State University, Long Beach discusses the truth behind youths in gangs and those who are criminalized.

In areas like Los Angeles that are known for the high rates of gang violence and criminalization, many fail to see that there are no assistance to those who are in need of help.

Many risk factors are the issues with not providing the proper care, services or involvement within the community.

Not having health care available to everyone is another leading factor.

Osuna used an example of homelessness to compare to the organizing groups of gangs.

Rather than seeing the issue of inadequate housing, or the idea behind gentrification and not providing help to those who are removed from the areas, many would blame the people struggling with being homeless to be the problem.

The same example applies to gangs and gang violence.

If there were more involvement with organizations like Homies Unidos, there would not have been as many issues throughout the years.

Homies Unidos strongly believes that the youth violence starts in a family’s home.

Whether it is due to low parent involvement, poor family functioning skills such as communication, or even not having the proper knowledge of how to approach the bond between parent and child, Homies Unidos offers help to be able to bring knowledge to both recipients.

Homies Unidos, A Beacon of Hope

According to pewresearch.org, there are 4.9 million Hispanics alone in Los Angeles, Surely there are individuals who are aware of Homies Unidos, but there is a very big possibility that most are not.

There is a lot of great information from this organization that a person may benefit from very much. It is important to share the knowledge with others, especially with those who may not be aware of it.

Homies Unidos is a beacon of hope to the Latino community because there are often times that many are still judged by others who do not understand their background.

They are a voice for those who feel that their voices cannot be heard.

The following video is a quick review that highlights the organization and their best interest at heart to help out their community.

As Sanchez said, “Don’t wait until it’s too late…look us up. We’ll be here.”

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