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Vickroy: A homeless man’s story

The link between homelessness and mental illness

According to statistics compiled by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, just over 40 percent of homeless people are single adults older than 21. Goldie’s Place, a Chicago resource for homeless people, estimates that 22 percent of homeless adults are veterans and 22 percent are mentally ill.

Nicole Richardson, associate director of Thresholds, an organization that provides help for the mentally ill in and around Chicago, said that while it’s easy for assimilated folks to simply suggest the homeless get help or get a job, it’s not so easy for people who have become accustomed to living on the streets. For them, outdoor survival has become a way of life. They have learned street skills and survival tactics that would need to be unlearned before they could begin to live inside again, she said. Often, mental illness symptoms are a barrier to that process.

“Maybe they don’t have the skills to work, or maybe it’s not a matter of will or desire but more a matter of symptoms,” she said. “Sometimes people with mental illness have cognitive issues or hear voices or have a distrust of others.”

Some people prefer to live outside the rules of tenancy, she said. “It’s not just a matter of finding such a person a home. You have to build trust and be a reliable presence in their life first. You have to be there during the process, which can be long.”

Whether circumstances or mental illness led to a person being homeless, in almost all cases, she said, bringing a person back inside is beneficial. Thresholds, she said, can assess each individual and then link them to the services they need, whether it’s training, jobs or medical care.

Marianne Bithos, president of National Alliance for Mental Illness South Suburbs of Chicago, said many people living with mental illness are very smart.

“You must remember that no one likes living with a mental illness and because of stigma many experience bad vibes from police as well as other people,” she said.

Family support is imperative to getting the individual help, she said. Many homeless people qualify for services, including disability, food stamps and public aid. But they often need help getting connected with those providers.

For more information on NAMI South Suburbs, visit nami.org

For more information on Thresholds, call (773) 572-5400 or visit thresholds.org

For more information on Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, visit chicagphomeless.org

For more information on Goldie’s Place, visit goldiesplace.org

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Updated: November 25, 2013 1:11PM



Anthony Mazar was in a fix. He only had a few hours to come up with $40 or he and his girlfriend would be out on the street.

It was hardly a new challenge for the Stagg High School alum and Vietnam War-era veteran who has been begging at 143rd Street and Harlem Avenue for four years now.

Normally, he can rise to it, but on this day, and indeed increasingly, the cops had stopped to shag him off the corner he’s come to claim.

“So I can talk to you for a little while, but then I have to go and find another corner,” he said when I rolled down my window and handed him my card.

I’d seen him many times before, in shirt sleeves in good weather and a beaten-up parka in bad. Sometimes I handed him a buck out the window. Once I gave him half my sack lunch and a five-dollar bill. And one year, near Christmas, I gave him $10.

Each time he thanked and blessed me. Always, his reflection in the rearview mirror made me wonder — Who is this guy, what is his story and is there something else I can to do to help?

Mazar, 55, is a conundrum, the kind of person who makes you ask a lot of questions, about poverty, about society, about yourself.

And I knew that if I was curious, others must be, too. Twice in the past few months, readers had called the SouthtownStar’s Speak Out line to commend the bearded man who rides his bicycle from an Alsip hotel to the Orland Park corner at least five days a week.

One anonymous caller said he helped a girl who fell while inline skating on a nearby walking trail.

“Aw, that?” Mazar said when we meet about a mile away in a forest preserve parking lot. “All I did was stay with her until help got there. Oh, and I offered her my chair.”

Another time, he said, he called police from his pay-as-you-go cellphone because a car burst into flames at the intersection.

“I helped the two women out. They were OK and everything,” he said.

Most recently, this item appeared on our Speak Out page: “We buried the patriarch of our family, a Purple Heart Korean War veteran on June 19. As the procession of cars made its way to the cemetery, I was so moved by the homeless man on 143rd Street and Harlem Avenue. He removed his hat, placed it over his heart and bowed his head … God bless him.”

After reading the items, Karen Whitney, of Crestwood, sent me a note. “He seems like such a kind, patriotic man. Just because he’s homeless doesn’t mean he’s not a human being.”

Mazar said he grew up near 51st Street and Winchester Avenue in Chicago, then his family moved to Hickory Hills. He attended Glen Oaks Elementary School and Conrady Junior High. He left Stagg after his junior year to join the Marines.

Much of his story is sketchy, and some of it he doesn’t want published. Suffice it to say he knows he has problems — “a disease of the mind,” he calls one — and knows he has made mistakes.

“I’ve done some bad things,” he said. “But that was a long time ago.”

Cook County court records show that Mazar has been arrested three times in the past five years for vagrancy, traffic citations and resisting police. Those charges were dropped. But in 2000, he was found guilty of burglary and possession of a stolen vehicle. That case is on appeal.

These days, he said, he knows good from bad, embraces Jesus and focuses on making ends meet so he and his lady friend can stay at the hotel.

Mazar has a PADS card, allowing admittance to a PADS shelter, “but people steal your stuff,” he said. “And my girlfriend doesn’t have a card. Without me, she’d have nowhere to go.”

A hotel room provides privacy and a shower, he added.

Mazar said he gets $600 a month in Social Security disability pay. The hotel charges $1,180 for a month’s stay. Mazar takes to the streets to make up the difference and to make enough for food and his phone.

I remarked that given how hard he works to make ends meet, why not just get a job?

“I can’t,” he said, naming two kinds of medication that he said prevent him from working. “I used to work as a general laborer and a truck driver, but the judge said I can’t work anymore.”

People, he said, are good to him at the corner. He said he’s lucky to have such a corner, a place where he doesn’t get robbed or mugged like he did in Chicago.

“Ninety-five to 98 percent of the people are kind,” Mazar said. “Sure, every now and then someone calls me a scumbag or a piece of s---. I give them the same blessing I give those who help me. But I admit, every now and then I get mad when they call me names.”

Worse, though, is when the police tell him to move. He doesn’t understand why charities can collect money at intersections but poor people cannot.

“They pay $25 for a permit,” Mazar said of the charities. “I’m trying to get a nonprofit tax number so I can get a permit.”

I asked about family. His parents are gone, and his older sister who lives in California doesn’t want anything to do with him, he said.

“If I could change my past, I would,” he said. “I’ve made some bad choices. I’ve gambled. I know that’s why I’m homeless. It’s embarrassing and it’s hard. My ankles hurt, this is hard work.”

With that, Mazar reminds me that he has to be off. He will ride his bike to 111th Street and Ridgeland Avenue and try his luck there.

“Don’t worry,” he said to me as I climbed back into my late-model Honda. “I figured it out. I just need to make $40 every day. That’s enough for the hotel and for dinner.”



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