Participating artists at the Red Line Service. Credit: Jordan Esparza

Efren Paderes has been homeless since the start of the pandemic. Originally from the Philippines, Paderes’s family moved to the United States in the 1980’s to pursue the American dream. His family experienced hardships when his mother was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in the early 2000s. Without insurance, his brother, father and himself banded together to pay for her treatments.

She passed away in 2005. The Paderes family, behind on mortgage payments, lost their home in 2008. The family moved to a smaller home until Paderes’s father died in 2015.

Afterwards, Efren moved to a single room occupancy (SRO) building while he worked at a restaurant. In 2020, the restaurant was shuttered amidst the wave of closures during the COVID-19 pandemic. Since then, he has been staying near train stations and in bus shelters across the city.

Today, Paderes is working on getting back on his feet. He works seasonally as a skate guard at Millennium Park and has friends who support him in providing help in the form of housing and food. 

One of these friends told him to consider visiting Red Line Service, self-described by the organization as “a community of Chicago artists with lived experiences of homelessness collaborating with professional artists” at Mana Contemporary Chicago in Pilsen.

“It helps us reintegrate back into society by ways of introducing us to art, which is a therapeutic way of calming us down and expressing our thoughts, our emotions,” Paderes told the Weekly. “It does help with slowly giving us back our place in society, not to be looked upon as worthless and homeless.”

Efren Paredes draws with Red Line Service. Photo by Jordan Esparza.
Paredes draws a cactus. Photo by Jordan Esparza.

Red Line Service is currently teaming up with the University of Miami School of Law for a printmaking project that explores housing insecurity. The graphics will be available online for housing advocates nationally to use in housing rights campaigns at To learn more about Red Line Service, join a group or attend an art event, visit

Printmaking sessions at Red Line Service begin with a lecture and discussion on housing issues led by a U. Miami law student. At a recent meeting, second-year student Abby Schneekloth and seven artists talked about the availability of public services and habitability, which the group defined as “adequate space and protects them from cold, damp, heat, rain, wind, threats to health, structural hazards and disease vectors.”

The lecture began by exploring what these terms mean in a housing context and why aid for the housing crisis differs between the pandemic and now. “Who determines when [homelessness is] an emergency?” Red Line Service executive director Rhoda Rosen asked the group. “When it impacts people who are middle class and people who are wealthy. When it’s only impacting people who live below the poverty line, then it’s a different sort of situation.”

The discussion also looked at real crises going on across the country that violate the habitability and accessibility of services, but are not prioritized as urgent as other emergencies by the different levels of government. 

Several communities across the country do not have proper access to water and sanitation. In one example, the group discussed the environmental injustice of Alabama’s Black Belt region, where 40 percent  to 90 percent of homes have inadequate or no septic systems, leading to raw sewage accumulating in backyards and increasing the spread of diseases.

In Chicago, a Johns Hopkin study revealed that 68 percent of children in the city under six years old live in households with tap water containing detectable levels of lead. The study authors called the results “disheartening.” Compounding the issue is the fact that Black and Latinx children are less likely to be tested for lead exposure than white children. 

The discussion then touched on access to sanitation via public toilets. Illinois only has five public toilets per 100,000 residents, compared to states like Washington, Montana and Minnesota, which all have twenty-four public toilets per 100,000 residents.

“We think of the bathroom as a private thing and that it’s all about privacy,” a group member said. “It’s a public thing. It’s about public health, public access. It’s time to shift our thinking around what a bathroom is.”

Participating artists contemplate the importance of public infrastructure for homeless populations. Photo by Jordan Esparza.

Chicago may soon see improvements regarding the issue of public restrooms. Block Club reported in January that public bathrooms operator JCDecaux would be installing and managing four public bathrooms in Chicago as part of a pilot program. City officials stated the four restrooms would be in central and highly traveled neighborhood corridor areas, though the timeline is unclear. Sponsor Ald. Daniel La Spata said the city is “moving with urgency” for the installation to occur before the Democratic National Convention. 

As the group debriefed about what they learned from the lecture, people began drawing and whittling on wooden blocks that would be the molds for the print. 

Marcela Adeze Okeke is a professional artist, whose work has been exhibited at the Museum of Science and Industry, Woman Made Gallery, and Fourtunehouse. She is also an undergraduate student at Northwestern University, majoring in film and English, and has previously taught introductory art at Marwen, a Chicago art nonprofit.

Ozeke had her phone next to her block, with the screen displaying a picture of a young man with his fingers in his ears, looking sad. The young man is her twenty-one-year-old brother Maxwell, who is autistic. 

“My carving is [about] accessibility and the fact that housing needs to be accessible in order for it to be adequate. I’m carving a portrait of my younger brother plugging his ears because we grew up in the line of flight travel,” said Okeke, who was raised in Albany Park. “He’s highly sensitive to sound. He plugs his ears when he’s outside because numerous planes fly over our neighborhoods constantly.”

Marcela Ozeke carves a print of her brother. Photo by Jordan Esparza.

For Okeke and many of the artists who work with Red Line Service, being able to connect with the community is meaningful, especially to connect with those as marginalized as the unhoused.

“I always look forward to going. People are from all walks of life that are a part of it,” Okeke said. “We share so many similarities because, luckily enough, we are all really open and kind to each other. We tend to laugh a lot and enjoy each other’s company. Community is a huge part of art making and art discussions, in how to develop anyone’s practice.”

Paderes’s art was displayed on a wall of Mana Contemporary Chicago. A black page displayed a man laying on a bench. In a thought bubble, there is a house. The title, “The Myth of the American Dream,” is displayed at the top of the page. For Paderes, the piece speaks to his struggles with affordable housing.

Efren Paredes’s ‘The Myth of the American Dream’. Photo provided by Rhoda Rosen.

“The idea came to me when I was living in an SRO. It got so hot and I didn’t have a fan. I ended up sleeping outside on a bench two blocks away from the SRO near a courtyard because I couldn’t sleep,” he said. 

“One of those nights, I was dreaming of living in a normal house.”

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

Michael Liptrot is a staff writer for the Weekly and Hyde Park Herald.

✶ ✶ ✶ ✶

This article is part of the Migrant Crisis Reporting Project, made possible by a grant from Healing Illinois, an initiative of the Illinois Department of Human Services and the Field Foundation of Illinois that seeks to advance racial healing through storytelling and community collaborations. 

The project is in response to the ongoing migrant crisis, which has seen over 37,000 migrants bussed or flown to Chicago since August 2022.

Managed by Public Narrative, this project enlisted two local media outlets to produce impactful news coverage on the disparities and tensions within and among Chicago’s diverse communities while maintaining editorial independence.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *