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.

Off the Lease: Mario Bailey Part I

Mario Bailey travelling on the sidewalk in his wheelchair along State Street

From The Chicago Sun-Times, March 26, 2001:

Some may already be lost

In the dying days of winter, Mario is in bed at his grandmother’s third-floor Stateway Gardens apartment. The steady pounding of a wrecking ball can be heard in his bedroom as the first of eight high-rises is demolished.

At 25, Mario is a hardened veteran of the gang and drug activity that has a viselike grip on many CHA projects. A convicted drug user, he is in violation of his grandmother’s lease.

But she can’t throw him out. In October, bullets from the gun of a rival gang member ripped through his spinal cord. . . .

the shooting, Mario would have been a challenge for those pledging to turn tenants’ lives around. . . .

Though he is still recuperating, Mario would move out before putting his grandmother, aunt and brother, who also live there, at risk of eviction.

But where would he go?

Kate N. Grossman and Curtis Lawrence “CHA Must Change Minds Before Changing Lives”

Mario Bailey is a child of Stateway Gardens. His grandmother, Sarah Bailey, brought him there to live when he was ten years old. (Five years earlier, the Department of Children and Family Services had placed him with his grandmother, because there was no one else to care for him.) Today he is twenty-six. Stateway has been the setting for almost everything memorable and meaningful, lovely and terrible, that has happened in his life, including the shooting incident in the autumn of 2000 that left him paralyzed from the waist down. Yet it is illegal for Mario to be at Stateway. To come home is to trespass. And his presence endangers his family. By embracing her grandson within her household, Sarah Bailey risks eviction.

Mario belongs to a large population of men who have, in effect, been banished from their communities because they have been arrestedtypically on drug chargeson CHA property. Their presence on the grounds of CHA developments not only exposes them to criminal trespass charges, it may also jeopardize the housing status of their families and friends. Under the “One Strike and You’re Out” policy, a family may be evicted if anyone on the lease or a guest is arrested on CHA property. Often the only way parents can settle One Strike cases and avoid eviction is by taking their child off the lease and agreeing that he will not live at home. That is what Sarah Bailey did in 1994 after Mario was first arrested on drug charges.

Much of the criminal activity at Stateway takes place in the open air lobbies and elevator corridors that residents refer to as “up under the building.” This is where the drug trade operates. It is also the village square. The commons. The public forum. And for the young men endlessly cycled and recycled through the criminal justice system and back into the community, it is the purgatory to which they return to hang out with friends, to get the news, and to wait for a door to open. In my experience, most do not return from periods of incarceration eager to resume laboring in the sweatshop working conditions of the street corner drug trade. As they emerge from prison, there is often an extended moment when they are ripe to move in a new directionto shift their weight, to realign their muscles, to alter the trajectory of their lives.

It was at such a moment in his life that I first met Mario Bailey in the autumn of 1998. Because my colleagues in the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC) and I have generated a handful of employment opportunities at Stateway over the years, I am often approached by men recently released from prison looking for jobs. Mario had returned home 48 hours earlier, after spending two years and two months in Cook County Jail on a murder charge. A jury had just found him not guilty. We stood in the lobby of 3542-44 S. State, the building where his grandmother lives, and talked.

“I used to see you around Stateway,” he told me, “but I was too shy to say anything to you.”

He inquired about a job. I told him we didn’t have any openings. Keep in touch, I said, perhaps something will come up.

“Sometime I’ll show you a scrapbook I made in jail,” Mario said.

I wasn’t sure what he meant.

He explained that he had clipped newspaper stories, including a Chicago Sun-Times article on NCC members working on the interior demolition of the Overton Building across the street—an article that mentioned men with whom he had grown up at Stateway. (See “Up on the Roof.”)

I was moved by the thought of Mario, in jail on a murder charge, clipping a story about our “grassroots public works” at Stateway and imagining himself joining in that work. I did not, however, have a job to offer him.

Apart from our program, the odds were heavily against Mario finding a job. He had never worked outside the criminal economy. Rather than a resume, he had a rap sheet that included multiple arrests for drug dealing and assault. Volatile and quick with his fists, he was, by his own account, a man of violence. As the chief of security for the Gangster Disciples in 3542-44 S. State, violence was, in a sense, his vocation.

As is often the case when ex-offenders can’t find a jobwhen the world they are trying to reenter seems a wall without a doorMario drifted back into the criminal economy and resumed laboring in the drug trade.

There was another factor as well. Mario had been arrested in connection with the murder of a Black Disciple leader. “I’ve been acquitted of murder by a jury,” he once remarked, “but I haven’t been acquitted by the neighborhood.” He found a measure of security within the fold of the Gangster Disciples.

We remained in intermittent contact. When he saw me, Mario renewed his request for a job. Then in the summer of 2000, several NCC members mounted a campaign on his behalf. Mario began to “volunteer.” He would show up at an apartment at Stateway that several NCC members were helping to rehab and look for ways to pitch in. He wanted, he said, “to get out from under the building.” He told me that he had stopped selling drugs and had imposed a curfew on himself.

At the time, the NCC was engaged in “trashing out” and securing vacant units throughout Stateway under a contract with the management company. As a matter of policy, we make no concessions to gang geography. We work in buildings “controlled” by the Gangster Disciples, and we work in buildings “controlled” by the Black Disciples. The NCC crew included veterans of both gang “nations” (giving rise to wisecracks about the NCC as a “multinational force”). It included men who used to shoot at each other, and now, working side by side, have become colleagues and friends. But Mario presented a special case. Would we put him at risk, if we assigned him to work in Black Disciple buildings? Would his presence put other NCC members at risk?

We discussed these questions among ourselves. We talked with a Black Disciple leader, who assured us, “As long as he comes as a working man, he’ll be okay.” And we decided to hire Mario.

There was one quiet dissent. Danielle Walters, the only other middle class member of the NCC besides myself, came into my office and closed the door.

“I just want you to know that there is one person I don’t want to have to work with directly,” she said. “Mario. He scares me.”

In August of 2000, Mario began to work as a member of the NCC. He worked hard. The transition to daily employment was not, however, without its bumps and stresses. There were occasional flaps with co-workers. In one instance, the foreman sent him home for the day. He phoned me. It took me a while to understand what he was saying, because he was weeping.

On Saturday, September 29th, I brought NCC members their pay checks. Mario was standing outside 3542-44 S. State. He did a little dance and displayed his check to the young men at their posts in the drug marketplace.

“Legitimate money,” he exulted. And he headed off to the bank.

The next week war broke out between the Gangster Disciples and the Black Disciples. There was regular gunfire between the buildings at night and occasional gunfire during the day. It shut down our trashing out operation and was a source of great frustration to NCC members.

I had a conversation at the time with an NCC colleague about how important it was that we embody for the young men with guns a different way of being a man in the world.

“That’s right,” he said. “We’re not GD’s or BD’s. Each of us has his own name.”

Off the Lease: Unauthorized Residents in Public Housing

Moving trucks parked outside a building at Stateway.

Under the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation,” public housing high-rises throughout the city are gradually, one by one, being emptied and demolished. The process of closing a building is governed by a set of understandings negotiated by the CHA with the Central Advisory Council (CAC), the citywide representative body of public housing residents. These understandings are embodied in a document called the Relocation Rights Contract. They include a series of notifications to residents, procedures for making “housing choices,” supportive services for those going through relocation, and so on. Judged on its own terms, the relocation process has been uneven, but at least there is a system in place, a set of procedures and standards to which leaseholders can appeal.

Such is not the case for another group of residents also affected by relocation—a shadow population living off the lease and under the radar. The number of such unauthorized residents in public housing is uncertain. It may fluctuate from development to development and from building to building, but it can be assumed to be significant city-wide.

On the basis of our experience at the Stateway Gardens CHA development, it is possible to distinguish four distinct groups within this population. Although these categories often overlap and interact in the case of particular households, it is useful for the purpose of designing effective policies to distinguish them:

  • Unauthorized members of otherwise lease-compliant families.
  • Tenants who have slipped off the lease in one way or another, including eviction, but remain in residence.
  • Individuals involved in the drug trade: sellers who live above their place of business and consumers who use vacant units as drug houses.
  • Families in need of transitional housing—the sort of families for whom public housing was originally built—who can only access it through the underground real estate market.

How many residents are living off the lease? Although there are no definitive numbers for the city as a whole, data from several sources, taken together, suggest the dimensions of the phenomenon:

  • A research team led by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh of Columbia University, and including residents trained in survey techniques, is following 400 families who lived in two buildings in the Robert Taylor Homes that were demolished in 1997. The preliminary findings of “The Robert Taylor Relocation Study” suggest that roughly a third of the population in these buildings was living off the lease. Professor Venkatesh and his colleagues found that there were seasonal fluctuations in this population. During winter months roughly 40% of those living in the two buildings were off the lease; during the summer 31%.
  • Over the last year, the Stateway Gardens Local Advisory Council (LAC) and the Neighborhood Conservation Corps (NCC) have collaborated with The CARA Program, an organization that provides job readiness training, in an initiative aimed at non-leaseholders living at Stateway. This initiative has two aims: to provide direct assistance to non-leaseholders and to serve as a diagnostic tool for learning more about the phenomenon so that appropriate policies and programs can be designed. Between July 1 and September 30 of this year, CARA completed 68 intake assessments at Stateway. Although the CARA assessments do not constitute a definitive sample of the unauthorized population city-wide nor at Stateway, they serve to sketch the broad outlines of the phenomenon and to suggest avenues for further inquiry. Of the 68 individuals assessed, 52 (76%) were living with families or friends and 16 (24%) were living in a vacant unit. Of the 16 living in vacant units, 10 (63%) had children living with them.
  • Over the past six months, three buildings have been closed at Stateway. During this period, Kenya Richmond and Andre Williams of the NCC have continuously monitored physical conditions in the buildings; they have walked each building, checking every floor, twice a week. (See “In Memory of Eric Morse: Part II.”) Although tracking the unauthorized population is not part of their assignment, they have been exposed on a daily basis to instances of non-leaseholders living in vacant units. Their experience suggests that as a building goes through the relocation process, a number of variables come into play that affect the size, location, and character of the unauthorized population. For example, as leaseholders are relocated, there may come a tipping point at which relatively large numbers of non-leaseholders move into the apartments being vacated. The introduction of a security force, as the building moves towards closing, will sharply reduce the number of unauthorized residents. Those displaced from one building, however, may simply move to vacant units elsewhere in the development. Thus, once the relocation process is initiated, the phenomenon becomes increasingly fluid.

According to the CHA’s “Plan for Transformation—Year 3” draft annual report for FY2002, there were 14,209 occupied units in family developments as of September 1, 2001. And the number of legal residents as of that date was 43,552. Note that on the basis of these figures the average household size in family developments is an improbably low 3.07.

When the ratio from The Robert Taylor Relocation Study (one non-leaseholder for every two leaseholders) is applied to the CHA’s total of legal residents, it suggests that there are an additional 14,373 people living in public housing who will be displaced by the relocation process.

Applied to the estimated number of non-leaseholders city-wide, the proportions that emerge from The CARA Program’s assessments at Stateway Gardens—76% of non-leaseholders are living with family and friends, 24% are living in vacant units—suggest that an estimated 10,924 of those living off the lease are living with leaseholders, and an estimated 3,450, many of them children, are living in vacant units.

Both Professor Venkatesh and The CARA Program take care to emphasize that their findings are preliminary. It would be intellectually irresponsible to treat them as definitive and to seize on them as established facts. It would be equally irresponsible to ignore them. For they represent the best evidence we have to date, and they are consistent with the day-to-day impressions of those in the field with whom we have discussed the matter. Further research is necessary, but so is immediate action to address the needs of this highly vulnerable population, whatever its exact size.

In effect, CHA high-rises throughout the city have come to function as a de facto shelter system. This informal system is the product of neglect and abandonment. It is also in some respects animated by decency and fellow feeling. In cases of unauthorized residents whose only crime is homelessness, others—leaseholders, resident leaders, property management staff, and even the police—often “look the other way.”

When buildings are closed, these de facto shelters are shut down, and the problem of the unauthorized moves from the shadows into the light. At Stateway Gardens this took the form of armed security guards, employed by the property management company under orders from the CHA, forcibly removing unauthorized residents in handcuffs.

How did these conditions develop? For a number of years, under successive administrations, the CHA has gradually been emptying the high-rise developments. The Plan for Transformation is the culmination and the ideological rationalization of what has been going on for the better part of a decade. In the case of Stateway Gardens, apartments have not been leased since the mid-1990’s.

The high vacancy rates that have resulted are thus the product of government policy, not lack of human need. The CHA’s own numbers suggest the extent of the need. There are 33,000 on the waiting list for apartments in family public housing; 22,000 on the waiting list for Section 8 vouchers. Using the CHA’s average family size, the number of people seeking access to public housing via the waiting lists is 168,850.

Moving Trucks.

This number is only suggestive of the need, for the waiting list has been closed since March of this year. And it has been widely known for several years that public housing is being dismantled. Hence it is fair to assume that in recent years many individuals who would have put their names on the list if there was a reasonable chance of securing a unit have not done so.

There are other indices of need. According to the Chicago Department of Human Services, there has been a sharp increase in requests for emergency shelter in recent months. The city’s shelter system—5,825 beds—has been filled to capacity for several months. And we have had unusually mild weather into December. As temperatures fall, the demand for shelter will rise.

Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that a significant number of individuals and families are living off the lease in unsecured public housing buildings. Although the CHA stresses that its contractual obligations are limited to “the lease compliant,” it recognizes that unauthorized residents living in buildings undergoing relocation present a problem that must be addressed. (One expression of this: the CHA recruited The CARA Program, promoted the idea of a pilot program at Stateway, and brought CARA and the NCC together.) Yet it does not have an adequate system in place to address that problem.

In a series of pieces that will be posted over the next few days, The View From The Ground will examine the problem of unauthorized residents. We will do so by describing several situations we have encountered at Stateway Gardens. Our approach is to start with a clear description of human realities on the ground, then work back toward questions of why the system produces such outcomes and of how it might be reformed.

The Dimensions of the Problem .

A methodological note: In estimating the number of non-leaseholders, we have rounded all numbers up, no matter how small the decimal, because they represent an estimated count of individual human beings. Human beings are indivisible and therefore should, we believe, be included, counted, and represented as a whole number. In other words, when people are being counted, the presence of, say, 0.2 indicates that there is a likelihood that there is another person present who should be counted rather than forgotten.

Chart prepared by Danielle Walters