Under his nicely tailored suit, Israel Vargas, the executive director of a Pilsen nonprofit for the homeless, hides a secret, the emblem of the Satan Disciples is tattooed across his entire back.
Vargas got the tattoo from his cellmate during the 12 years he spent in prison for accessory to murder. Addicted to cocaine and an occasional thief, Vargas got caught up with the Disciples and their violent culture. But he’s since turned his life around, rededicating it to offering the help and guidance he wishes he had.
When he was 12 years old, Vargas came to Chicago from Puerto Rico, where Vargas went to church every Sunday with his family and thought of himself as very religious.
“And then all of a sudden,” he said, “it was me hanging on the corner until late night, picking fights.”
Vargas says in those days he felt torn in two directions.
“I’ve always been battling between good and evil because at that time, I was doing good things like working with aldermen to clean up or paint over graffiti,” he said. “And at the same time, I was gang-banging.”
Vargas says the gang fights in his neighborhood in the mid-1980s were mostly just fights over territory, not drug wars.
“There were no weapons involved, that was not our mentality,” Vargas said.
But Vargas says that within a few years, guns were plentiful and the rivalries became more deadly.
On January 17, 1990, Vargas walked out to the corner and found his friends worked up over a drive-by shooting. Soon, one of his friends found a gun and they all started running toward the other gang’s territory. While Vargas didn’t pull the trigger, his friends followed an opposing gang member into an alley and shot him.
Vargas turned himself in and was soon sentenced to 35 years as an accomplice to murder.
On one of his first nights at Pontiac prison, he received a kite—a note inside of a laundry bag with a shoe, tied to a series of ripped up sheets, that was swung down the cell block to pass messages.
“I get a kite from a guy who’s part of my gang—‘I’ll be sending you a knife later on tonight,’” Vargas said. He knew this was a dangerous position to be in: if you lost a gang’s knife, you could get killed yourself, because they were so hard to come by.
Luckily, Vargas found an ice pick hidden under his mattress—perhaps the guards missed it during the last shakedown, he says—so he wouldn’t be indebted further to the gang.
But the experience caused him to enter “survival mode.” Thinking of the best way to protect himself, he noticed his gang’s leader went to the prison’s school every day.
“So I’m thinking, ‘OK, this guy has security with him at all times, and if I go to school with him, that means his security can be my security.’ So I started going to school,” Vargas said.
Vargas had never seriously considered a earning a college degree, but it all clicked as he shadowed the Disciple’s leader, and by the time he was released, he had two associate degrees.
“I needed to serve some time, and not two years,” said Vargas, who served 12 years and 9 months before his release in 2002. “I needed to serve a few years. When you’re lost, it takes years to restructure your life, to figure out what you need.”
Once he got out, he stayed with his mother, and he began working for his brother at a Chicago-area nonprofit. He enrolled in Roosevelt University, eventually earning a master’s degree. Now, he’s the executive director of the San Jose Obrero Mission, overseeing 18 employees, two homeless shelters, and a million dollar budget.
At the mission, Vargas offers residents around-the-clock support. Residents are assigned a career counselor, given computer access, and once their shifts end, staff members often drive residents to job interviews and school.
Vargas’ story gives him extra credibility among his residents, especially because he was homeless when he was 19. After burglarizing an apartment in his mother’s building, he was issued a restraining order, preventing him from living there.
“Because of my experiences, I can’t judge anybody. I can give second chances,” Vargas said. “I also have the responsibility to step up and be a model. I have to step up and teach you. And my residents know I’m not above them, and I’m only trying to help them.”
The message is getting through to his residents.
“Israel has an edge that a lot of academic people don’t have, in that Israel has experience in many of these bad choices and the consequences of those choices,” said San Jose Obrero Mission resident Julian Hunt.
Knowing that few of Chicago’s homeless has a strong support system, the kind of support he found when he was released from prison, Vargas is eager to see the city develop its new initiative against homelessness, called Plan 2.0.
“Everyone needs a place of support like the mission’s,” Vargas said.