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Chicago Tribune

Daley Aide, Carmelo Vargas, Outlines Plan For Homeless; Priorities Include Job Assistance

By Gary Washburn, Tribune staff reporter.

December 10, 2003
Copyright ©2003 Chicago Tribune. All rights reserved.

Mayor Richard Daley on Tuesday named Carmelo Vargas, a 19-year veteran of the city's Department of Human Services, to head the department and lead Chicago's initiative to end homelessness over the next decade.

Vargas, who had a tough life as a child after his family moved to Chicago from Puerto Rico, urged people to do more than give a handout to people on the street who ask for help.

"Right now for the holidays, take some time and just sit down with a homeless (person) instead of giving him money," Vargas said at a City Hall news conference where he was introduced by Daley. "Buy him lunch, buy him a breakfast and just talk to him, and you will find out how interesting those people will be.

"If you sit down and have a coffee with them, you find out they do have a face, they do have a name," Vargas said. "They do have a history. They do have a background. They do have family. Most of them have children."

Vargas, 59, came to Chicago at about age 10, he said.

"It was difficult in the beginning. There were days when we did not have enough to eat. I knew the discomfort of living in housing without heat or electricity. I dropped out of school in 7th grade to earn income to support my family."

Vargas worked as a short-order cook and burned himself so many times on steam tables that he decided to take a new direction, he said.

He ultimately received a bachelor's degree from Northeastern Illinois University and did graduate work in urban studies at Governors State University.

Vargas joined the Department of Human Services in 1984 and rose through the ranks. He became director of the emergency services division, in charge of providing shelter to the homeless and disaster victims and setting up warming and cooling centers, before being named a deputy commissioner three years ago and managing the homeless outreach and prevention program.

"Everybody who has dealt with Carmelo knows he is not the kind of public official who spends all his time sitting behind a desk," Daley said. "Carmelo has been the front line for the Department of Human Services for almost 20 years. He has been the person on the street."

Vargas said he will make the 10-year plan to end homelessness the department's top priority.

The plan, unveiled by Daley in January, is designed to find permanent lodging for people who live on the streets. A key component is to provide such services as job training and substance-abuse rehabilitation.

Assuming City Council approval of Daley's nomination, Vargas will replace Ray Vazquez, who resigned to accept a position with the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago.

PHOTO: Carmelo Vargas, Mayor Richard Daley's choice to lead the Department of Human Services, introduces wife Elsie (left) and daughter Jasmine during a news conference Tuesday. Tribune photo by Chris Walker.

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