Off the Lease: Mario Bailey Part II

Portrait of Mario Bailey sitting in a car.

On the evening of October 4th at about 8:00, Mario came down into the lobby of 3542-44 S. State to give someone money to buy him a beer to have with his dinner. He was wearing his work clothes and NCC identification card. He had hoped to work that day, but the continuing gang war had forced the NCC to suspend operations. As he headed back toward the stairs, shots were fired out of the darkness. His body slammed to the ground. There was no blood and only a small entrance wound, but the damage was profound: a bullet had severed his spinal cord.

Mario doesn’t know who shot him. Were they aiming at him or did he step into the line of fire? He doesn’t know for sure. What he does know is that the terms of his existence changed that night.

Mario was treated at Cook County Hospital. After a week, he was transferred to Oak Forest Hospital. When the time came to release him, there was nowhere for him to go but home to Stateway—to his grandmother’s apartment.

The Stateway buildings have ramps leading to the elevator corridor, but nothing else in them is adapted to the needs of the handicapped. Mario’s grandmother lives on the third floor. More often than not the elevator is inoperative. (See Gloria Dickson’s “Dear Mr. Peterson,” documenting the condition of the elevator in 3544 S. State.) So Mario was dependent on friends to carry him up and down the stairs. Often he was stranded on the third floor. He would sit on the porch outside his grandmother’s apartment, looking out at the world through the grates that enclose the exterior hallways at Stateway.

The interiors of the apartments are equally inhospitable for someone in a wheelchair. The bathrooms are difficult to maneuver in. In order to pass from room to room, Mario had to force his chair through doorways. In our office—a five bedroom apartment on the first floor of 3544 S. State—the paint has been stripped off the door frames at the level at which his wheels scraped against them.

When Mario returned to Stateway, a support network formed around him. Rehabilitation treatment was available to him at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital, the premier such institution in the city. An anonymous donor gave us the means to purchase a new bed for him. We arranged for a social worker from the Family Institute of Northwestern University, Reginald Richardson, to see him on a regular basis. NCC staff—some of them lifelong friends of Mario’s—looked for ways to be helpful. This was, above all, true of Danielle Walters who has acted as his advocate with outside institutions at every stage of the process.

Yet Mario has, on his own account, lived inside a great isolation since the day he was shot. I don’t presume to know nor to be able to represent what Mario has gone through in the last year. There is a story of turbulent grief and anger yielding by degrees to new ways of being in the world that only he can tell: a story of the terrible knowledge inflicted on him by violence and of the ways he is remapping his world in light of that knowledge. Perhaps some day he will tell that story. I hope so.

What I do know is that some four months ago Mario came to the conclusion that in order to go forward with his life, he had to leave Stateway. He had to find somewhere else to live. His presence strained his grandmother’s household. Daily life was full of frustrations for him, as he tried to navigate through a built environment that didn’t acknowledge the existence of people in chairs. Above all, he didn’t feel safe. He felt vulnerable. On a couple of occasions, in the course of heated arguments, others he thought were his friends tipped him out of his chair on to the ground.

“I’m like a sitting bird,” he said. “A bird in a nest.”

Once he decided that his survival depended on moving out, Mario was relentlessly focused on his goal. He sent out a dozen applications. And he pressed his NCC colleagues to help him. It took me a while to grasp his sense of urgency, but he made sure that I did—he insisted that I hear him.

While Mario went through channels, I pulled strings. I appealed to a wide array of friends and associates for help in finding him an apartment. Among others, I sought the help of resident leadership (Francine Washington of the Stateway resident council), on-site service providers (The CARA Program), CHA senior staff (Isabel Blanco, Chief of Programs, Holly Holzer of her staff, and through them, the Mayor’s Office for People With Disabilities), and foundation executives (Eleanor Peterson, former director of Donor’s Forum, and Sunny Fischer of the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation). Howard Stanback of the Davis Group, a member of the Stateway development team, referred us to Featherfist, a supportive housing organization based in South Shore. Melanie Anewishki and Araina Brown, executive director and assistant director of Featherfist, each came down to Stateway to meet Mario. They in turn put us in touch with Marina Carrott of the Renaissance Companies, a real estate firm with an inventory of subsidized units, who also came to Stateway and met with Mario.

Two men carrying Mario down the steps to the landing of the building.

I mention these names in order to make a point. Everyone we contacted was responsive and sought to help. Some made exceptional efforts. Mario sustained a fierce sense of focus and was highly effective on his own behalf. He made a strong, positive impression on those who came to take his measure. Yet despite these promising ingredients, the process stalled, for we ran up against the issue of Mario’s criminal record. This proved a far greater impediment to finding housing than his handicap.

Consider the question from the perspective of a property manager who, on the basis of limited information, must assess what kind of a tenant an applicant would be. How can he be expected to look past a criminal background check that discloses multiple arrests for drug activity and assault? What kinds of countervailing information would be sufficient to offset such a record? Why should he be the one to take a chance—to gamble on the possibility that the individual has changed?

If this was true for Mario—confined to a wheelchair and supported by a network of well-connected advocates—imagine what other young men face. Semi-nomadic, defined in the minds of others by their criminal records, unable to establish records as tenants, they are a category of homeless we do not see as such because we are so afraid of them. The only stable housing option the society has to offer them is prison.

Happily, Mario’s story does not end here. Eventually, we found our way to an institution, perhaps the only such in the city, created to address the housing needs of this population: St. Andrew’s Court, an SRO facility for ex-offenders developed by St. Leonard’s House, a halfway house on the west side. We connected with St. Andrew’s Court through the independent efforts of Marina Carrott (a board member of St. Leonard’s House) and Sunny Fischer (whose foundation funds St. Leonard’s).

David Davis, the manager of St. Andrew’s Court, came to Stateway and met with Mario. He informed us that he had one handicapped accessible unit and that it was available. A few days later Mario went to St. Andrew’s Court for an interview. When we arrived, David Davis showed us around the facility. Recently constructed, elegantly designed, well maintained, it was a startling contrast to the housing we had just left at Stateway. Walking down the first floor corridor, it was immediately apparent which apartment Mario was applying for: the peephole was located in the middle of the door at the eye level of someone in a chair. Throughout the unit, regard for the person living there was expressed in various design features—in the dimensions of the furniture, in the kitchen sink with no cabinets beneath it so that a wheelchair can easily slide under it, and so on. To me, the most affecting expression of regard was the bathroom mirror that can be adjusted to the optimum angle so that someone in a wheelchair can clearly see his or her reflection.

St. Leonard’s House/St. Andrew’s Court proved to be an institution designed to show the same regard for Mario as an ex-offender as it shows for him as a paraplegic. It provides a setting in which he can clearly see his own reflection: can see the possibilities of life after violence—the violence he has committed, the violence he has suffered.

Follow Mario Bailey as he moves into his new apartment… [more]

As the process unfolded and it became apparent that Mario was going to find a new home at St. Andrew’s Court, his face underwent a subtle change—a lightening of his customary gravity. Leaving St. Andrew’s Court to return to Stateway after the interview, he gestured toward the man sitting at the desk at the entrance to the building.

“Did you hear what he said, when we came in?” Mario asked. “He asked, ‘Can I help you?'” He smiled broadly and repeated the words as if they had never been addressed to him before. “Can I help you?

After the interview, we waited a week for definitive word from St. Andrew’s Court. Several times a day Mario checked in at the NCC office. Any word yet? Finally, the call came: he had been accepted. On November 2nd, he moved. His boxes had been packed for weeks. With the help of some of the young men up under the building, we loaded his belongings into the NCC pickup truck. He embraced his grandmother. We carried him down the stairs. And he set out for his new place. Mario had, at last, found the door.