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Whittier Wanderer : Hungarian Immigrant Arouses Pity, Fear

December 18, 1988|MARY LOU FULTON | Times Staff Writer

The man leans against a gray trash dumpster in an Uptown Whittier alley, hands stuffed in the pockets of his worn, dirty jeans.

A local merchant says "Good morning," but the man only replies, "Can't talk, can't talk," and waves the merchant away. The rubber soles of the man's tattered shoes flop as he walks away, revealing the dirty soles of his feet.

For about 10 years, the man, a Hungarian immigrant estimated to be in his mid-30s, has lived in the alleys of the Uptown business district, refusing to talk to nearly everyone and refusing offers of food and clothing, according to local merchants and mental health officials.

"He's never bothered anybody," said Charlie Schaida owner of Dusty's Bin in the Uptown business district. "The way he looks just scares people."

Source of Controversy

But this year, the man has become a source of controversy. The city closed a $60,000 public restroom in the Uptown area for four months after the man moved into the men's room and refused to leave. Residents have debated what to do with him in letters to the editor of the local newspaper and in meetings of a city-appointed committee on the homeless. Some Uptown merchants say they fear the man is scaring customers away, though he is believed to never have entered a store or initiated a conversation with anyone.

It wasn't until last year when county mental health officials interviewed the man that his name--Zulton Halzzi--became known.

"He spoke clearly," said Michael Schacht, a psychiatric social worker with the county's El Camino Mental Health Clinic in Santa Fe Springs. "He said he was OK, that he didn't have any problems and that he knew where he could stay overnight and get food. He claimed this was his life style."

Because Halzzi demonstrated that he knew where to get help and has not been a danger to himself or others, he does not meet the criteria for involuntary confinement, Schacht said. "It's a legal decision, and that's sometimes hard for the community to understand," he said.

Schaida, who checks on Halzzi regularly, says the man lived behind the Hoover Hotel until the Oct. 1, 1987, earthquake. In short conversations over the years, Schaida said, Halzzi disclosed that he is a Hungarian immigrant but little else is known about his past.

In September, Schacht received several complaints that Halzzi seemed less lucid. Whittier Police took Halzzi into custody (no charges were filed) and he was interviewed by El Camino Mental Health Clinic psychologists. At first, Halzzi refused to talk and Schacht planned to order him confined.

But Halzzi eventually broke the silence, saying he knew what to do if he needed help, Schacht said. "We had to let him go."

Halzzi moved into the public restroom after the earthquake. He ignored repeated requests to move, and city officials decided the only way to get rid of Halzzi was to lock him out of the restrooms, said Dana Vaughan, Whittier's director of parks.

"We thought . . . maybe he would find other places to hang around," Vaughn said. Halzzi eventually left the restrooms and Vaughn said there have been no complaints about him since the city reopened the facility about two months ago.

Lost Use of Facility for Months

"But we lost the use of a $60,000 facility for four months," Schaida noted.

Police were unable to arrest Halzzi because loitering laws do not apply to public streets and alleys, said Whittier Police Lt. Harold Sandifer. "He has to violate some law before we can arrest him," Sandifer said.

Schacht observed: "In Los Angeles, you see people like him on the streets all the time, but he sticks out like a sore thumb in Uptown Whittier."

At the restroom, Schaida leaned against the wall outside the men's room, imitating the stance Halzzi used to assume nearly every day. The tan stucco was worn to white in the spot where Halzzi planted his foot.

After he left the restroom, Halzzi moved to the loading dock of a Greenleaf Avenue restaurant where he apparently eats from a trash dumpster, Schaida said.

These days, Halzzi spends most mornings near the dumpster, then moves to another alley a few blocks away for the afternoon. There, Schaida has seen Halzzi staring into a city-owned parking garage for hours, hands gripping a chain-link fence as he contemplates empty parking spaces. Halzzi carries his possessions in a couple of black plastic garbage bags, which he leaves in the doorway of a nearby building.

Customers Intimidated

Maria Castillo owns a beauty shop across the alley from the parking structure, and says her customers are intimidated by the sight of the long-haired, bearded Halzzi.

"I've had a lot of customers try and come in through the back, then see him and come in through the front," said Castillo, owner of Styles Now. "He doesn't do any harm. But people see him and get scared."

Halzzi's case has been discussed at meetings of the city's panel on the homeless, and community activists are frustrated at their inability to get him off the streets, said Manny Ocampo, Whittier's director of human services.

"He kind of falls between the cracks," Ocampo said. "This is the kind of problem where there's not going to be a magic answer."

Schaida said he recently gave Halzzi some new clothes, but Halzzi left them hanging on the metal pin of a garbage dumpster. "He walks away every time," Schaida said.

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