Local man helps others beat homelessness

December 17, 2009 (CHICAGO) Israel Vargas has been executive director at the San Jose Obero Mission in the Pilsen neighborhood for just over a year now.

The mission provides temporary housing for up to forty men and keeps a waiting list for many more. It offers computer training, life skills and other support services to help the men find jobs and housing in 120 days. Despite the economy, Vargas says his success rate is strong.

"Last year out of the 181, 55 gained income and out of those, 47 went into housing. I say that's some pretty good numbers considering how everything is, including the fact that we have had people that were physicians, accountants, sales people," said Vargas.

Some say 120 days is not much time. Vincent Hargin has been homeless for nearly two years. He hopes this shelter is his last stop.

"I'm getting more job leads here and I take that to heart. Still, sometimes I come up empty but the fact that they give us job leads and help us out with computer search, that means a big deal," said Hargin.

Adding to the challenge, the men enter with a varying level of personal issues that must be addressed before they are job ready.

Victor Mercer, 19, arrived recently from Texas. He has no identification. No school records. Nothing.

"They helped me with my social security. They're helping me with my birth certificate so I can get my ID and then get a job. Then they're going to help me go back to school," said Mercer.

Vargas knows each of the men and takes a hands-on approach to helping them. He says he understands their plight better than most.

"I know what it is not to have a job. I was unemployed. Who else to guide you than somebody who has been through the system and knows exactly what needs to be done to be successful?" said Vargas.

Vargas was homeless at the age of nineteen and spent twelve years and nine months in prison for his role in a gang-related murder. He has since earned his master's degree. He tells the men, starting over begins with a made up mind.

"The transformation begins inside. You have to start inside. You got to want to change your life. You got to want to get away and you got to want to be successful and then you have to be ambitious and do it," said Vargas.

Vargas says the city is so impressed with his results that he has been asked to take over the leadership of 2 other shelters beginning January 1. That will increase the number of beds he has available from 40 to 250 including places for women and children.

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