Our Man on the Streets | Our Town | Chicago Reader

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Our Man on the Streets

The city's undertaken an ambitious ten-year plan to end homelessness. So why's the homelessness czar still trying to tackle the problem one man at a time?

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"Are you looking for something better?" asks Carmelo Vargas, peering into a makeshift tent on the west bank of the North Branch of the Chicago River. A Streets and Sanitation river patrol reported what looked like a homeless person's camp, and Vargas, commissioner of the city's Department of Human Services, took the call himself. To get here, he's walked a couple hundred yards from Foster through thick brush in his dress shoes, suit pants, and shirt and tie.

Vargas first called out from a safe distance, "Is anybody home?"

There was no answer. The staffers thought the tent was empty and wanted to move on. But Vargas moved in toward it, and when he lightly touched the plastic tarp, it stirred. Squatting down, Vargas told the occupant he was here to help. The flap slowly opened and a dirty hand emerged, an old watch on the wrist.

Vargas has learned over the years not to ask a homeless man why he's not living in a shelter. He knows the answers: too many rules, too little freedom to smoke, drink, and come and go as you please.

Instead, Vargas asks the man about himself. What's your name? Omar. Where are you from? Turkey. How long have you been on the streets? A year. Do you have any family that could take you in? A cousin, in Wisconsin.

"Let me make you a deal," Vargas says. He offers to put Omar up in a hotel for five days, get him cleaned up, a change of clothes. Then, he says, he'll call the cousin in Wisconsin and put Omar on a Greyhound bus if the cousin will take him.

Omar is still lying in the tent. He seems hesitant. He says his cousin can't take him in until next month. "Then I'll put you up until next month," Vargas says. "You don't need to be down here all alone like this."

Omar accepts. Vargas instructs one of his workers to get him a room at the Milshire Hotel on Milwaukee Avenue, where Vargas can house people for $25 a night using funds from his discretionary budget, and to call the cousin.

Then he hikes the trail back toward Foster. "Good catch, commissioner," says one of his staff.

Appointed head of DHS in December, the 59-year-old Vargas has been working with the homeless since he joined the department in 1984. The city's homeless outreach program is a reconnaissance operation with 31 Human Services staffers and two specially equipped mobile units--buses that cruise the city and park in areas dense with homeless people. But until recently the 6,000-plus beds in the city's homeless shelters represented most of what the department had to offer, in addition to some piecemeal medical, mental health, and addiction treatment.

That's all supposed to change under the city's much-touted plan to end homelessness, developed over the last couple of years by the Chicago Continuum of Care--a consortium of about 200 city agencies, nonprofit entities, homeless advocates, and affordable-housing developers. The program's aim is to provide permanent affordable housing for all the city's homeless within a decade. But Vargas isn't in charge of administering the city's part in the plan--that falls to Ngoan Le, special assistant to the mayor on homelessness, who works out of the Department of Housing and reports directly to Mayor Daley. "I handle the big picture," she says. K. Sujata, director of the Continuum of Care, says she's only had one long conversation with Vargas since he was appointed commissioner.

On a typical day Vargas, who makes $125,844 a year, shows up at the Human Services offices in the old Goldblatt's building on Chicago Avenue at about nine. He does paperwork until around noon, then hits the streets. At about four it's home for a rest and a bite to eat. Then, most weeknights, it's back out until 11:30 or so.

Vargas says he also spends his weekends and holidays roaming Chicago. "Mother's Day, Father's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas--these are the best times to talk to homeless people," he says. They're thinking of their families on those days, reflective about their lives. "I take them for a sandwich and a cup of coffee," Vargas says. "I tell them, 'Come with me, get cleaned up, let me put you on a train.' And sometimes they say, 'I gotta change my life.'"

Vargas's parents came to Chicago from Puerto Rico in the mid-50s, when he was ten. He didn't speak English, and after spending three years in the fifth grade he became discouraged. He dropped out of seventh grade at age 15 and worked to support his family, eventually going back to get his diploma from Wells High School at age 21. Then he got an undergraduate degree from Northeastern Illinois University and a master's in urban studies at Governors State. In between he survived what he recalls as a harrowing stint on the front lines in Vietnam. He says he still remembers the pain and surprise he felt on his return, seeing some of his fellow soldiers homeless on the streets of Chicago.

But Vargas says that's not why he scours the streets. By now it's simply what he does: once you become accustomed to looking, "you start seeing homeless people everywhere." He adds that Mayor Daley has caught the bug. Vargas says it's not uncommon for him to get a couple of calls a day from the mayor notifying him of a homeless person.

Early in July, Human Services, which had handled a jumble of programs including Head Start, child care, and youth services, was split in two, leaving Vargas in charge of homelessness, crisis intervention, and family support services and creating a separate division, the Department of Children and Youth Services, for the rest. While many city commissioners would have fought not to have their departments split up, which means a loss of budget money and staff, Vargas hopes the smaller department will mean less paper pushing. "The hardest part is being locked up in the office signing contracts, reading letters, sitting in meetings, learning about budgets," he says.

In Vargas's brief tenure as commissioner, his administrative efforts have already been subject to some scrutiny. In March he and his outreach team helped the Continuum of Care organize and execute a head count of the homeless that was widely mocked. Vargas says early press releases that put the number at 958 were premature, and that the actual number is higher. But the final results still haven't been released, and when they are, the total likely won't have risen to 15,000--the number of homeless people Ed Shurna, executive director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, estimates there to be in Chicago.

With figures like that floating around, there are some advocates who don't see the wisdom in Vargas's hands-on approach. "You can't do it one by one," says one homeless group's director who asked not to be named.

One man who'll testify to the contrary is Bill Harkness--Mr. Bill to his friends. Harkness came to Chicago in the mid-80s, after serving four years in San Quentin for drug dealing. He'd made a vow to God to make a clean start but struggled after moving here. In California, "I was almost filthy rich," he says. Here, working as a line cook at Michael Jordan's restaurant, he was far from that. When Jordan's closed and he lost his job, Harkness became depressed. After a short stint cooking at the Irish pub Fado, he broke up with his live-in girlfriend and started abusing alcohol and drugs. He wound up homeless, living on Lower Wacker for two years.

Vargas met Harkness on one of his outreach runs. He offered him a room at the YMCA and got him into a 28-day inpatient substance abuse program and, later, a halfway house. Vargas gave Harkness bus passes to help him look for a job.

Vargas says that he meets 10 to 15 homeless people like Harkness a month, "people who have some resources, who have some skills," and who are able to get off the streets fairly quickly with a little counseling and some financial help. But he also estimates that about 10 percent of the homeless population is intractable, committed or absolutely resigned to a life on the streets.

Harkness has been off the streets for three years, and has started a catering business. He sings Vargas's praises, not just for his generosity, but for his style: "He's a realist. He tells it like it is. He's been there, done that, bought the T-shirt. He can relate to people, and he's sincere."

On the ride back from Omar's camp by the river, Vargas's walkie-talkie crackles. It's the outreach staffer he left in charge of getting Omar to a hotel. Omar has walked off, taking some of his blankets with him. "He'll probably be back there tonight," the staffer says over the radio. "We can't take 'em if they don't want to go."

Vargas shrugs, and we drive on.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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