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Chicago’s Attack On The Homeless: After Tent City Evictions, People Are In Hiding

As temperatures drop and the winter months near, the city of Chicago remains committed to ensuring homeless individuals are unable to erect “Tent Cities” in the Uptown area of the city near Lake Shore Drive. Authorities also contend the city has no obligation to offer alternative housing for homeless individuals.

The Chicago Police Department is prohibiting any “protest tent encampments” in Uptown and anyone who attempts to setup tents will be subject to arrest, as of September 19.

Such treatment of homeless people is typical of Alderman James Cappleman, whose ward includes Uptown. In his career as a politician, Cappleman has fought to ban low-rent cubicle hotels, introduced an ordinance to criminalize those at bus stops that are not waiting for buses, and ordered a Salvation Army food truck to stop providing food to homeless people. Cappleman also has overseen the loss of over 1,000 single-room occupancy units of affordable housing in the ward.

The actions of city officials have led to a federal lawsuit submitted to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. On behalf of Uptown Tent City Organizers (UTCO) and one of its members, Andy Thayer, the Uptown People’s Law Center alleges the city of Chicago has violated their First, Fourth, Fifth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights by “denying” the group “any venue to establish their protest encampment, arresting and threatening to arrest those that do so, and threatening to seize plaintiffs.”

“People are in hiding literally because the city has, subsequent to the evictions, tossed out people’s tents and tossed out people’s tarps and done it in a patently illegal fashion,” Thayer told Shadowproof. “Parks Department workers about a week or so ago came upon a place [in Lincoln Park] where people were staying. It was during park open hours and yet they confiscated people’s stuff and threw it into the trash, threw it into a garbage truck.”

Thayer said people are hiding on private property. They are hiding on public ways. At 35th and Federal on the south side, where people were at the viaducts, the police threatened them with arrest. A similar incident happened at the Chicago River by Fullerton Avenue.

Uptown’s homeless population accounts for nearly ten percent of the homeless population in Chicago. In total, there are about 82,000 homeless in the city, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless. There are not enough shelters. It is a “very dire situation,” Thayer added.

A Visible Presence To Protest The Lack Of Affordable Housing

As Thayer described, encampments offer homeless people “collective security” and community. They make it possible for people who work to leave without fearing their property will be stolen. A major complaint with shelters, particularly the Pacific Garden Mission, is that staff will steal people’s possessions.

The Uptown Tent City Organizers describe themselves as a group whose members “reside on the street and other non-permanent locations, primarily using personally owned tents for shelter and supportive housed community members.” They work to bring “homeless individuals out of the shadows and into open public space.”

There was a need for an organizing group after the city initiated a plan to reconstruct the Wilson Avenue viaduct near Lake Shore Drive, where homeless people lived for years.

As the court filing summarizes [PDF], Thayer requested a public assembly permit on March 7, after a permit for Morning Side Construction was set to expire for Stewart Mall. They believed they might be able to move homeless people to this area, which is an elementary school that shut down some years ago. It also would offer homeless people a “highly visible location in order to protest the lack of affordable housing in the city of Chicago.”

There was a previous attempt to setup a tent city at this location that was stopped by authorities. From July to September of last year, about twenty to thirty homeless people put up tents and lived at Stewart Mall. They were across from many businesses and had the ability to draw attention to the “lack of services available for people experiencing homelessness.” But on September 26, Morningside Construction, with the support of police, evicted the encampment, even though there was no construction in progress.

The city denied Thayer’s request for a public assembly permit on March 15 and cited “safety” concerns without any specifics. At this point, it became clear after speaking to a representative with the Chicago Law Department that Morningside Construction had an illegal permit and could not put up fencing and “no trespassing” signs. Stewart Mall was supposedly reopened and a public assembly permit request was withdrawn. However, two hours later, fences were back up at Stewart Mall to keep homeless people out.

Later in August, a motion for an injunction to prevent the city from evicting homeless people from the viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence Avenues was filed. A hearing took place, but the city prevailed with their claim that it had no “intention to arrest homeless individuals or unlawfully dispose of their property.” Days later, on September 17, the police threatened arrests and removed anyone in the area nearby the Wilson Avenue viaduct.

According to Thayer, even though homeless people moved west of the viaduct and out of the area that was covered by a reconstruction permit, the city argued it covered where they moved. Then, the argument shifted to this is a “safety hazard.” People moved overnight to an area on a public way south of Wilson Avenue near Marine Drive (which runs parallel to Lake Shore Drive). The city invoked an ordinance that supposedly said one cannot store property on the public way, which Thayer said was never cited before.

“The city decided they were going to interpret that ordinance to ban homeless people from camping anywhere in the city on public property. So we advised people to move at least temporarily to Metropolitan Water Reclamation District property that was next to that,” Thayer recalled. A former police officer who now works for the department came out and notified the encampment they would be evicted.

Homeless residents relocated to a vacant lot just north of the ward. The city claimed they found an agent for the owner of the property. The organizers did not believe that someone had complained. They believed the city had hunted down the property owner and cajoled them to object.

Thayer said, “We had one of our people intentionally get arrested there to see what we can find out, who this alleged complaining witness is or whether he or she contacted the city or vice versa.”

“If People Die Due To This”

Attacks against homeless residents by the city escalated when the city chose to use the lakefront to host a Mumford and Sons concert in the spring of 2015. Homeless people were pushed out of the area under the pretense that they could not be there to bother concertgoers.

Thayer recalled many homeless residents did not have tents. Those were provided by UTCO so there could be a visible symbol of the city’s failure to take care of those in need of housing.

The city fought against the presence of homeless people, even going so far as to cite an ordinance that supposedly states a person cannot park a vehicle, a large group of people, or a carriage on a viaduct or bridge. The problem is people were not on top of the viaduct or bridge so the city was manipulating the intent of the ordinance to criminalize homeless people.

UTCO recorded an encounter with police and publicized it. This allowed the tent cities to exist with far less harassment for a short while until the city opted to repair the viaduct, which will have “defensive architecture” to obstruct people from staying there during the day or overnight.

Unfortunately for homeless residents, the city of Chicago has a bit of legal precedent to bolster their war on the working poor. When Occupy Chicago tried to stay overnight in Grant Park, there was a mass arrest and then a lawsuit filed to challenge the park hours ordinance used to prohibit residents from being in public parks overnight. The city lost in trial court but won on appeal.

“If people die due to this, I put that right at the doorstep of James Cappleman and [Mayor] Rahm Emanuel. Full stop,” Thayer concluded. “They’re responsible. They’re controlling the situation. They’re driving the agenda.”

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."