Homies Unidos switches to feeding families in pandemic

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By Shirley Hawkins

Contributing Writer

LOS ANGELES — An organization assisting immigrants new to Los Angeles is Homies Unidos, a nonprofit agency that supports individuals impacted by deportation, incarceration and criminalization.

“Our mission was to reach out to youth affected by poverty and youth violence by developing programs that would provide alternatives to gangs, drugs and other negative activity,” said Homies Unidos Executive Director Alex Sanchez. “We have now touched the lives of more than 7,000 youth and their families in Pico Union’s Central American immigrant community of Los Angeles.”

The 20-year old agency, which offers services such as legal assistance, advocacy training, tattoo removal and violence prevention and intervention workshops has been forced to temporarily shut down its non-essential programs and on-site operations because of the spread of COVID-19.

But with many immigrant families scrambling to feed their families during the pandemic, Homies Unidos has launched its Community Response Initiative which holds bi-weekly food distributions in Koreatown, Pico-Union, Westlake, the West Adams District and parts of South Los Angeles.

“We serve approximately 1,200 people a month through our programs that feed the needy,” Sanchez said.

He added that Homies Unidos also assembles care packages and delivers them to teen parents, single parents, undocumented and mixed-status households, formerly incarcerated individuals, families of currently incarcerated individuals and individuals experiencing homelessness.

Sanchez said that the need for crucial services has greatly increased during the pandemic and the organization is accepting donated goods such as water bottles, toilet paper and toiletries, hand sanitizer, isopropyl alcohol, aloe vera gel, hand soap, female hygiene products, diapers and infant care items.

“Our community needs us now more than ever and we will continue distributing food and providing care packages to our community members to alleviate some of the stress and financial strain brought on by the current situation,” he said.

Sanchez said that Homies Unidos was originally formed in 1996 to address the problems of urban violence perpetrated by gangs from El Salvador.

“A group of youth came together to discuss methods of diminishing the violence that was plaguing the city. Out of these meetings Homies Unidos was formed,” said Sanchez, who is originally from El Salvador.

“Gang members and former gang members who resided in the predominantly Central American neighborhoods of Los Angeles in collaboration with Homies Unidos in El Salvador started working … to reduce gang violence.”

Sanchez knows only too well the impact of gang violence. For five years, he was separated from his family who had immigrated to the United States to start a new life. His family eventually sent for him and his younger brother, but Sanchez said he had a difficult time adjusting to the new culture and his family.

“I joined a gang,” he said. Eventually realizing that gang life was a dead end, Sanchez was inspired to form a branch of Homies Unidos in Los Angeles after meeting a member.

Homies Unidos now offers numerous programs and services and works to unite families torn apart by deportation.

“Recent activity among authorities, FBI and [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] has resulted in the increased detention and deportation of members of our community,” Sanchez said. “This enforcement occurs in the forms of raids and increased militarization of our borders.”

Sanchez said through its Libertad con Dignidad (Liberty with Dignity) campaign, the organization works to help families separated due to deportation and assists children who are left behind in the U.S. without parents and placed in the foster care system.

“We have advocated tirelessly for the rights of immigrant youth and families, supported the community integration of over 200 unaccompanied and/or immigrant youth fleeing violence in their countries of origin, and worked with youth and families impacted by the nation’s incarceration-to-deportation pipelines,” he added.

Sanchez said adjusting to a new culture can be challenging to new immigrants who are arriving in the United States, particularly the youth.

“Homies Unidos offers a curriculum to deal with anger due to cultural assimilation, trauma from violence witnessed in their country, acclimating to new siblings and parents they are in conflict with as well as bullying they may have experienced as immigrant youth.

“As part of our violence prevention and intervention efforts, we have partnered with Breaking Through Barriers to Success to provide gang-involved youth with case management services, job placement and court support,” Sanchez said. “They learn positive living skills, how to understand their families and introductions to their rights.

“As part of our Black and Brown Alliance for Justice in solidarity with Black Lives Matter we want to remove Jackie Lacey from the district attorney’s office,” said Sanchez, who added that members of Homies Unidos have joined the protest that occurs weekly at Lacey’s district attorney’s headquarters.

“We are tired of police officers victimizing our communities and getting away with not even a slap on their hands,” said Sanchez, who pointed to the recent killings of Dijon Kizzee and Andres Guardado by sheriff’s deputies that have ignited protests and cries for justice.

“We have not heard a word from Jackie Lacey’s office,” Sanchez said. “She needs to go. So does [Sheriff] Alex Villanueva, who is protecting [deputies] who are linked to internal gangs within the department.”

To reach Homies Unidos, contact Program Director Ana Minauri (213) 282-0501.

Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at metropressnews@gmail.com.