[Hpn] Chicago, IL - Top homeless advocate to head human services - Chicago Sun-Times - December 10, 2003

HC Covington HC Covington" <hcc@icanamerica.org
Thu, 11 Dec 2003 03:56:42 -0500


Top homeless advocate to head human services


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FRAN SPIELMAN - Chicago Sun-Times - December 10, 2003

Chicago, IL - A seventh-grade dropout who left the scarred
arms and burn blisters of short-order cooking to devote his
life to eliminating homelessness was chosen by Mayor Daley
on Tuesday to be the city's $125,844-a-year human services
commissioner.

Carmelo Vargas, 59, replaces Ray Vazquez, who abruptly
resigned last month amid discrepancies in federal audits of
the city's Head Start programs.

The controversy, in part, prompted Mayor Daley to create a
new Children and Youth Services Department with its own
commissioner, who has not been named. That will free Vargas
to turn his undivided attention to his lifetime passion.

For nearly two decades, Vargas has worked his way up through
the ranks of the department he now leads, reaching out to
the homeless, earning their trust, getting to know them by
name.

Three years ago, he persuaded the mayor to establish two
mobile units --each staffed by two nurse practitioners and a
pair of social workers -- to bring social services to the
streets, parks and viaducts where homeless people gather.

"It's not an easy process. ... There used to be a little
lady on Dearborn by the entrance to the Blue Line about 85,
90 years old with two big briefcases. It took me 3-1/2 years
just to get her to sit down with me and look at an
apartment.

She was there like 18 years being homeless. She
didn't trust nobody. ... If they ask you for money, buy 'em
a cup of coffee instead. Feed 'em. Talk to 'em. Don't just
give 'em a dollar and walk away."

Vargas said he has never known the pain of homelessness. But
he came painfully close. His father was a sugar cane cutter
and coffee bean picker in Puerto Rico who moved his family
to Chicago during the 1950s in search of a better life.

It didn't happen. The Vargas family went hungry, moved
incessantly and often lived in apartments without heat or
electricity.

When Carmelo was in seventh grade, he dropped out of school
and got a job as a short-order cook to help support his
family. He would finally graduate from high school at the
age of 21, the oldest member of his class, before earning a
bachelor's degree from Northeastern Illinois University.

"The steam table where they burn your hands and you go home
with blisters all over -- I think that's what changed my
life. I used to go home every day with blisters all over me.
I wasn't going to do that no more," Vargas said.

As human services commissioner, Vargas said his top priority
will be to implement the ambitious plan that Daley announced
during the mayoral campaign.

It established a goal of ending homelessness by 2012 by
shifting the focus away from shelters and toward permanent
housing with a bottomless network of social services.

Chicago Sun-Times source page: http://tinyurl.com/yq9k
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ŠTHE HOMELESS NEWS - H.C. Covington, Editor  http://tinyurl.com/2yg2