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Saving San Jose Obrero

Thu, Mar 22, 2012

Exec. Dir. Israel Vargas - to make a donation to San Jose, visit www.sjom.org and click "make a donation."

Two huge hands cradle a sleeping man on the “wall of hope” mural at San Jose Obrero Mission (SJOM) in Pilsen. “Hope, Respect, Jobs, Dignidad” are all part of the picture at this shelter that is home to 40 men on any given night, but which is in danger of closing.

Delays in receiving public money funneled through the state and the city are the problem; there’s a two-month gap in January and another delay in summer, because of the state’s fiscal year that ends June 30, says Executive Director Israel Vargas. Private sector philanthropy that could float the agency through these funding crises has also decreased.

“The men’s program lives day by day,” Vargas said. “If the state cuts the money that comes through the city, we will be on our way to shutting the door. There’s a big push for agencies to get hold of [Gov. Pat] Quinn to tell him that any interruption of money could close us down. If we don’t get increased dollars from foundations and individual donors, any interruption of dollars from the city could close us down. It could happen in June, but $200,000 would put us in a good position; it would cover three months’ operations with salaries and direct services.”

The only interim housing program in Chicago that is primarily Latino-focused, SJOM has been consistently full since Vargas took over as executive director in July 2008. After politely refusing a call from a priest who sought to place a man there on a recent weekday, Vargas showed his 60-man waiting list: a two-inch stack of intake forms. Men who cannot get into SJOM are referred to Pacific Garden Mission or City of Chicago Department of Family and Support Services offices at 10 S. Kedzie.

Two hands cradle a sleeping man on San Jose Obrero Mission's 19th Street wall

Latinos are the newest and fastest-growing homeless population, Vargas said. They were 11 percent of Chicago’s homeless population in 2009 but many factors could push that number higher, said Linda Rodriguez, SJOM interim resource development director.

Rodriguez cited new research that shows Latinos spend 59 percent of their income on rent, compared to other communities who spend a lesser percentage. Their families are more often living doubled up with friends than other ethnicities: 26 percent of Latinos are living in overcrowded conditions, but just eight percent of African Americans and four percent of whites.

Latinos have also been employed in some of the lowest paid jobs and have experienced the largest increase in unemployment. The Illinois unemployment rate, for example, is 9.6 percent but among Latinos almost 12.7 percent. A University of Illinois neighborhood initiative, meanwhile, pegs the Pilsen jobless rate at 25 percent.

Another factor pushing Latino homelessness is the exodus of manufacturing jobs from Chicago, Vargas said. In the past men with little education or no documentation worked as mechanics or construction workers and were paid under the table. Unable to navigate the new system, these mostly 30- to 45-year-old men have been “living under the radar,” often homeless for years, he added.
The newest population of homeless may have hitched a ride here hoping that life would be better, Rodriguez said. The reality was that they found themselves worse off than American jobless – and with no resources to return home.

A dearth of agencies providing services to Latinos and SJOM’s reputation also factor into the demand for its services.

Yollocalli Arts Reach and the National Museum of Mexican Art were among those who did the mural on SJOM's 19th Street wall.

San Jose Obrero Mission was founded in 1981 by Father David Staszak of St. Pius V Church in response to a growing number of people coming to the rectory asking for a place to sleep. The original shelter in a community building was destroyed in a fire and Staszak raised $300,000 for the present site at 1856 S. Loomis, just down 19th Street from the church.

A Latino-centric approach is a factor in its success, Vargas says.

“Our culture is different. A lot of us are skeptical because our political leaders, if they are not paying attention to my needs and I am homeless, I don’t want to listen to them. There is also a certain pride. We talk to them so they do not lose that, so they feel they are considered.”

The agency is small enough that Vargas can intervene when he sees someone not participating. He encourages the rest of his bilingual staff — even cooks – to do the same.

“We don’t warehouse people,” Vargas said. “We are able to give individualized attention. Nobody is falling through the cracks.” SJOM has one case manager for its Men in Crisis program and another for its newer Families in Crisis services. In addition, 25 nonprofit agencies collaborate for services. Pilsen Wellness Center provides men’s mental health services while Beacon Therapeutic offers the same to women; Mujeres Latinas offers women’s domestic violence counseling; the Resurrection Project helps find affordable apartments; HealthCare Alternative Systems Inc. (H.A.S.) and the Women’s Treatment Center offer substance abuse counseling/treatment.

In keeping with the “housing first” model of the Chicago Alliance to End Homelessness, SJOM has offered a more service-intensive residential program since 1999 and interim housing since 2003. Its infrastructure, however, has remained that of a shelter: kitchen, common areas, and offices downstairs; bunk bed dormitory and 3-foot by 6- foot closet spaces upstairs.

Wake up call and breakfast are roughly 6 to 7 a.m., followed by cleanup until 8 a.m. (Everyone has chores around the mission as part of life skills training.) Mornings are spent at work, at school, or seeking employment, meeting with the case manager, or participating in life skills and career training. After a 15-minute noon lunch, there’s more cleanup and more of the same activities as in the morning. A snack and showers are available at 5 p.m., followed by dinner at 7 and then cleanup. The sleeping area opens at 9, with lights out at 9:45.

Employment Services Coordinator Imelda Rodriquez leads a life skills session.

Although the city’s interim housing model is for 120 days of funding, Vargas argues against a “one size fits all” approach, saying it’s sometimes not enough time for clients to get their lives together.

One man has been at the shelter for two years because his felony record mandates him to attend classes, which simultaneously prevent him from getting a job. “The system itself is pushing people down,” Vargas said.

Another middle-aged man has no GED, no English language or computer skills and no family who would take him back. “You’ve got to keep him longer, but [public] funding doesn’t go beyond 120 days, that’s the city model. I told them ‘no way. Social Security disability applications take six months. If you are denied, you have three appeals, so it can take two years.’”

In FY 2011, SJOM’s Men in Crisis program provided food and shelter for 123 men. Thanks to 952 hours of individualized case management, 85 of them were referred to employment assistance services; 34 men found jobs and 43 moved to more stable housing.

But upon entering, only 20 percent of the men had jobs, while 75 percent had no income at all. Latinos comprised 67 percent of the population, African Americans 19 percent and non-Hispanic Caucasians 12 percent.

Success stories, itemized on its web site, included:

– Jorge, who had worked in the hospitality industry for 17 years but needed treatment for drugs and alcohol and employment; he was working in a high-volume casual restaurant but was seeking to move to a fine dining position.

– Reggie, 19, who grew up with his brother under an uncle’s care but whose aunt kicked him out when his brother entered the army; he is now in the reserves, living in a youth shelter, and taking college courses.

– Gerardo, 24, who had been raised by a single mother after his father abandoned them but who had seen his mother through early-onset Alzheimer’s until her death. After a fight with his girlfriend, he had come to the shelter, where he received the life skills training he had missed as a teen. He had saved money from construction jobs, moved into an SRO and was planning to get a degree in massage therapy or nursing.

A January 2010 addition to SJOM’s portfolio of services is its Families in Crisis program. Vargas had gone to the City of Chicago Deputy Commissioner of the Dept. of Family and Support Services in October 2009 to seek raises for his staff. Instead, he was asked to take over a 210-bed emergency shelter at Cermak and Rockwell in Little Village.

After the City of Chicago asked Vargas to take over a struggling shelter, he found this new location: the former St. Ludmilla Convent at 2408 S. Albany, which he raised funds to renovate.

The existing building was in bad condition and overcrowded, Vargas said, and grants for the emergency shelter were unavailable, so he was forced to downsize and focus on interim housing. He also found a new location nearby. The former St. Ludmilla convent at 2408 S. Albany was renovated, thanks to Vargas’s fundraising efforts.

Now, the Families in Crisis first floor features a computer room and dining room that is also used for movie nights. The ground floor has a dorm area for 10 single women and a playroom with a forest mural and pretend kitchen. Up on the second floor, there’s rooms for 16 more people. Families can range from just a woman and child, to families of six in bunk beds, with several shared bathrooms.

In FY 2011, the program’s 181 participants included 49 households, 85 children and 47 single women. Over 360 hours of individualized case management resulted in seven referrals to employment assistance services, 14 people gaining jobs, 51 moving to more stable housing, and basic physical exams and life skills for all clients.

“This is not a shelter, this is not a center, this is a home,” said one woman on the SJOM web site of her four months there with her son and three daughters. “Thanks to your dedication and love in these 4 walls, it doesn’t make you feel homeless. Instead they give you hope and strength to wake up everyday and become a better person. To turn the negative into a positive.”

Fundraising is easier for the women’s and children’s program than for the men’s, Rodriguez said, because “foundations seem to feel men should be able to stand on their own two feet.” Yet she stresses that SJOM’s men in crisis are a mix of veterans and people with mental health issues, substance abuse and disabilities. Some of them are so beaten down by their unemployment and homelessness so that the only place they can receive health care is a shelter, she said.

The families program has doubled SJOM’s capacity even as it has stretched its resources, she said.

Just the same, Vargas remains upbeat, with a desire to have two case managers for each program, a well-paid staff to eliminate turnover, and more food choices than what is available from local pantries.

“If we could cut expenditures, we wouldn’t have to worry about spending money,” he said, smiling, about the 12 boxes of eight-ounce cups he received from Dart. He has drawn up a list of products used at both facilities and a plan to approach community relations personnel for more of the same.

If you would like to donate, please visit their website. On the right side of the main page, you’ll see a “make a donation” option.

Written by Suzanne Hanney,
StreetWise Editor-In-Chief

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