A federal judge dismissed a lawsuit against the city of Chicago’s evictions of homeless people, even as officials continue to remove homeless people and fail to provide affordable housing.
Andy Thayer, an activist with Uptown Tent City Organizers (UTCO), requested a public assembly permit for a protest encampment at Stewart Mall after the city indicated it had plans to renovate two viaducts under Lake Shore Drive, where homeless Chicagoans lived.
This location is across from the office of the ward’s city council member, James Cappleman. Organizers believed the site would offer homeless people a “highly visible location in order to protest the lack of affordable housing in the city of Chicago.”
The permit was denied in March and April of 2017, and on behalf of Thayer and UTCO, the Uptown People’s Law Center (UPLC) requested an injunction to prevent the city from evicting homeless people since there was no alternative site provided by officials for them to relocate.
Judge Sidney Schenkier declined to grant an injunction. The city of Chicago dispersed homeless people in September, a few months before winter. It also confiscated and destroyed several tents and belongings.
The UPLC amended their lawsuit to allege violations of homeless people’s First, Fourth, Fifth, and Eighth Amendment rights.
On June 6, Schenkier decided it was not in the federal court’s jurisdiction to rule on the claims, and he dismissed the claim of a First Amendment violation.
Alan Mills, executive director of UPLC, said they were upset about the outcome because he believed the case had merit, and the judge could rule on it. However, what the judge decided was they were “in the right place in the first place,” the Illinois Circuit Court of Cook County. So, they are back where they started with nearly a year’s delay.
Additionally, the judge concluded UPLC needs an individual homeless person to be the plaintiff, not someone who organizes the homeless or an organization that advocates for the homeless.
“The good news for the case, the bad news for the world is the city keeps doing this to people. As recently as this week, they have another [eviction] planned,” Mills said. “So there is no short supply of people we can use as plaintiffs.”
UPLC is reviewing their options and does not know if or when they will be filing a new lawsuit on behalf of a homeless person with similar claims.
Thayer asserted, “This isn’t southern California. People really literally need these tents in order to survive, and the city of Chicago by forcing the dispersal of these tent cities is putting the problem of homelessness out of sight [and] out of mind so they can go back to ignoring it the way they did quite happily before the tent cities formed and became an object for the press and public to notice.”
According to Thayer, Schenkier appeared clueless about the reality of homelessness. He made comments before rejecting an injunction last year that suggested homeless people have options because they can ride the city’s public transit system. That is illegal if not terribly burdensome.
Schenkier maintained UTCO failed to “adequately allege” that the organization suffered an “injury.” He added, “Although they plead that UTCO provided ‘many’ tents used by the homeless in Uptown, plaintiffs allege only that one unattended tent was confiscated, and the allegations do not the UTCO to that tent in a concrete or particularized manner.”
To this, Thayer responded, “All of those tents that were there, probably 80 percent of them were from UTCO. We fundraised for them. People gave us donations. We went out and bought tents, and we’d donate them to the homeless.”
There was an eviction on September 18, 2017, and then four subsequent evictions, and as Thayer recalled, the city destroyed all the tents, including those used by individuals in a vacant lot on Sheridan Road.
Schenkier further contended the encampment was not “inherently expressive” and did not deserve First Amendment protection because someone would have to explain how the tents were “overtly political in nature” to a passing observer.
“The Occupy movement and sit-ins during the civil rights movement, unlike the instant case, had a singularly expressive purpose to protest government policies,” Schenkier added.
Of course, Mills disagreed. “The idea of symbolic speech is well established.”
“These 100 people under Lake Shore Drive got more press than the other 50,000 homeless people in Illinois combined. So obviously it had everybody’s attention and that was part of the purpose to be there,” Mills added. “I don’t think anybody would go through there and not get the message that this was a problem. And certainly after the first move, and theoretically before that, people had signs pitched on the outside of their tents saying, ‘Homelessness Is Not A Crime,’ ‘Homes Not Bars,’ and whole bunches of that kind of messaging.”
Remarkably, the decision seemed to deliberately ignore the fact that the plaintiffs alleged their tents had signs so they were engaged in a clear act of protest. UPLC took several photos and can prove they had messages tacked on to them.
“Once there are signs that go along with those tents, it’s absolutely crystal clear this is a protest and entitled to some degree of First Amendment protection,” Mills argued.
On June 11, the city of Chicago launched a removal of homeless people from a part of Lower Wacker Drive in downtown known as “The Triangle.” The city is fencing off the area to prevent homeless from returning.
The eviction, according to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, follows a “street sweep last month in which workers seized homeless people’s property and forced them to move.” It apparently violates a settlement agreement the city reached with Lower Wacker residents in 2015.
While the city engages in more hostile act against homeless residents, Ben Carson, the secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), announced in April that the federal government plans to increase the rent for millions living in public housing. This could have a significant impact and add to the number of homeless in Chicago.
The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’s latest survey in May [PDF], which includes United States census data, estimates there are 80,000 Chicagoans, who were homeless in 2016. Eighty percent live “doubled-up in the homes of others due to hardship, often in overcrowded conditions.”
The Justice Department in 2015 argued in Bell v. City of Boise et. al., “It should be uncontroversial that punishing conduct that is a universal and unavoidable consequence of being human violates the Eighth Amendment.”
“Sleeping is a life-sustaining activity—i.e., it must occur at some time in some place. If a person literally has nowhere else to go, then enforcement of the anti-camping ordinance against that person criminalizes her for being homeless,” the Justice Department added.
“Many homeless individuals are unable to secure shelter space because city shelters are over capacity or inaccessible to people with disabilities,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Vanita Gupta, head of the Civil Rights Division. “Criminally prosecuting those individuals for something as innocent as sleeping, when they have no safe, legal place to go, violates their constitutional rights. Moreover, enforcing these ordinances is poor public policy. Needlessly pushing homeless individuals into the criminal justice system does nothing to break the cycle of poverty or prevent homelessness in the future. Instead, it imposes further burdens on scarce judicial and correctional resources, and it can have long-lasting and devastating effects on individuals’ lives.”
Rather than heed the words of the Justice Department under President Barack Obama, Mayor Rahm Emanuel is trying to placate residents with supposed plans to build tiny homes. But development on a pilot project is not to exceed $2 million.
“That means Chicago will be starting with a pilot about as small in scale as the homes themselves,” Fran Spielman, a journalist for the Chicago Sun-Times, wrote.
In the meantime, Emanuel and the city of Chicago will continue to spend thousands upon thousands of dollars in city funds on fences and other structures that keep homeless out of certain areas.
The more invisible Chicago’s homeless are, the harder it is for homeless people to persuade fellow residents that politicians must do something to help them instead of merely serving the real estate developers who finance their re-election campaigns.