New mural in East Pilsen summarizes San Jose Obrero Mission’s struggle
January 7, 2011
The mural of the San Obrero Mission in East Pilsen portrays the struggle some men face today and their hope for a brighter future. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)

By Lawrence McCallum

Homelessness, unemployment, hunger, and substance abuse are circumstances known all too well by the men who use the services of San Jose Obrero Mission, a shelter for the homeless at 1856 S. Loomis St.

For decades, San Obrero has extended the hand of friendship to those whose lives have disintegrated, providing basic necessities while strengthening the inner resources of clients so they can begin to provide for themselves.

This past summer, an East Pilsen artist enclave called Yollocalli Art Reach, the youth initiative of the National Museum of Mexican Art, painted a mural dedicated San Obrero on the mission’s south wall, drawing attention to an otherwise inauspicious location. Lead artist Jesus Rodriguez, a tattoo artist who uses a graffiti style, oversaw 15 art students to complete the project; Gabriel Villa, Yollocalli youth programs coordinator, chose the student artists.

“It gives the youth a chance to see how much it takes to run a homeless shelter,” Villa said.

The mural represents human progress with a cocoon and the gradual development of its contents into a butterfly, all bathed in brilliant green. Beneath this depiction of life and growth lie austere images of poverty and deprivation against a black background. A homeless man clutches a blanket and rests on a sidewalk, a forlorn child holds a sign reading “Do not look away” (based on an actual incident), and another stands nearby, dressed in ragged clothing.

As the images progress, the black background fades and the green area expands, becoming rich and luminous. The final image shows two men standing tall, confident, and proud.

Welcoming environment

After viewing the mural, visitors enter the building through a reception area that gives onto a dining room with two rows of five tables each and 25 chairs strategically arranged. Walls painted in pastels complement staff members’ calm demeanor.

In an immaculate and well equipped kitchen at the rear, a certified cook prepares three nutritious meals daily. A small pantry contains canned and packaged goods from the Greater Chicago Food Depository and the Chicago Anti-Hunger Federation.

Eric Castillo of the San ObreroMission staff helps resident Earl Kelly with his job search. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)
Abraham Jimenez, the shelter’s supportive services case manager, said that while San Obrero was founded in the early 1950s primarily to serve Latinos, today’s clientele is racially and ethnically mixed.

”All clients are accepted,” Jimenez said. “This includes individuals who suffer from mental illness and alcohol or drug addiction. Each client is allowed a 120-day period of residency. We schedule one meeting per week in which there is an assessment of a client’s progress in job placement, finding a permanent residence, or connecting with educational opportunities. It is made clear that their stay here is a temporary one with jobs, housing, and independence being part of a major transition in a person’s life.”

Counseling is provided in the resource room, and four computers are available for research or entertainment, plus one television set.

Forty beds are available, and each man has his own locker that is cleaned weekly when clothing and bedding are laundered. According to the work schedule, each man takes turns sweeping and mopping the sleeping area.

Men must leave the shelter at 9 a.m. each day and return by 9 p.m. During the day, men search for jobs or seek options for long-term housing.

“Phone calls and in-person requests for help have increased dramatically in recent months,” Jimenez stated. “We have a rapidly growing list of people either seeking residency here or asking for our assistance in locating affordable

Resources sought

Obtaining financial resources, equipment, and furnishings is a continuing struggle that is becoming more difficult. This task falls mainly to Maghan Lusk, resource development director at San Obrero.

“There is some money provided by the City,” Lusk said. “Such amounts are supplemented by grants from private foundations and corporations, however, there is much to be done and additional cash amounts are needed. Social and economic conditions are worsening, and increasing numbers of people are facing desperate situations.”

The mission recently held a fundraiser, Evening of Hope, at the National Museum of Mexican Art. Organizers obtained donations of works of art, which they sold at a silent auction. Local businesses and musicians provided music, coffee, and food.

“Such events are a great help to us,” Lusk said. “But we need to re-align our marketing strategy to appeal to a broader group.”

San Obrero recently opened two more locations, an emergency shelter for men at 2628 W. Cermak Rd. and a shelter for single women and women with children at 2620 W. Cermak Rd.

“The emergency shelter began in January 2010 and is funded by the City,” Lusk said. “Some men, if they qualify, will enter the interim housing program at the San Obrero Center on Loomis Street. We intend to maintain limited housing at each location and keep the agency small. This will allow more attention to individual needs.”

For more information, contact Lusk at or call (312) 243-4347.