San Jose Obrero Mission Helping Homeless One Person at a Time

Audio Slideshow: Visit the mission and hear the stories of those staying there.

By Fatimah Salami and Amber Tweedie

After being turned away from several homeless shelters for not fitting their criteria, 20-year-old Alex Samuelson sought out one more place where he hoped to temporarily call home, San Jose Obrero Mission.

San Jose Obrero is a Latino male homeless shelter in East Pilsen that finally gave Alex a place to lay his head and opportunities to rebuild his life.

“Everybody is equal here,” said Samuelson. “We’re all in the same boat. Just because you speak one language or both languages or just because you’re one color it doesn’t matter here. We’re all brothers here.”

San Jose Obrero began as an organization by Friar David Staszak in 1981 as a way to fight homelessness in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood.

Interactive Map: For locations of San jose Obrero missions in Chicago, visit this map

One of San Jose Obrero’s initial objectives was to offer male only emergency shelter housing, but nearly 30 years later, it now offers two interim housing programs. The organization offers housing for men and another for women and children in addition to the male only emergency shelter.

Eric Castillo, intake specialist for San Jose Obrero, said the focus has gone beyond providing shelter to the homeless but encourages each participant to get on a path that will allow him to remain independent and successful.

“We try to instill a better mind state for them so they can transition over to housing, having their own place, or maybe even starting a family,” said Castillo. “We try to instill those good habits. That’s how I feel we’re helping the community. In reality we’re helping the individual and not the community.”

The men’s interim shelter located in East Pilsen on 19th and Loomis streets, offers a 120-day program aimed at building the participant for self-sufficiency.

Career training classes and resume building workshops, are the types of classes offered to participants.

Samuellson has been a participant at this location for six months and has learned many new things at San Jose Obrero.

“San Jose has taught me self control,” Samuelson said. “They’ve taught me how to handle my own money. They taught me patience, especially patience. They’ve taught me so much that’ll help me live a proper adult life where I can be independent and not have to rely on other people.”

As intake specialist, Castillo sees many participants like Samuelson who have used poor judgment or have fallen on tough economic times.

Castillo evaluates participants to make sure they’re not abusing drugs or alcohol and their potential to be successful in the program.

“It’s nice seeing those people who actually leave our program and are making good of themselves,” said Castillo. “I’m very proud of those people because they follow the rules. They do what needs to be done to progress on to the next level in their lives. We’re a stepping stone for them. Not only are we changing their lives they’re changing our lives too through their experiences.”

Samuelson is originally from Kansas City, Mo., and moved to Chicago where he attended Job Corps for academic and work force training.

After making some bad decisions while working there, he was expelled from Job Corps and left in the streets. After researching homeless programs at a local Chicago library he walked into San Jose Obrero on May 6, 2010, and began his journey to rebuild his life.

“From what I’ve heard from other people here other shelters are more lax on the rules, but being lax on the rules encourages laziness,” said Samuelson. “San Jose isn’t necessarily strict but they’re trying to encourage you to get back on your feet. From what I heard, other places don’t have the career services and personal counseling like San Jose Obrero. San Jose doesn’t just treat you as a person. They treat you as someone they want to see succeed. They actually get to know you. They don’t just treat you as a name on a list.”

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