CCH welcomes community organizer Bisma Shoukat

We welcomed a new community organizer to our staff this week! We asked Bisma to introduce herself.

Bisma Shoukat

My name is Bisma Shoukat. My experience as a Muslim-Indian child of immigrants is where I developed my passion for social justice work. I was in 4th grade when the 9/11 attacks happened. I had just decided to start wearing a hijab (headscarf) that year. My parents begged me to take my hijab off and I listened to them because I could tell they were genuinely worried for my safety. It broke my heart to not be able to represent such a big part of my identity. This is the moment when I realized how I am considered an “other” in the country of my origin. This is when the advocate in me woke up and the passion for creating a more just world was ignited.

Although I was born in San Jose, California, I spent four years of my early childhood in India. My family moved to India shortly after my younger siblings were born because even with both of my parents working, expenses were too high for our family of eight. Living in India left a huge impact on my heart and overall being. I was exposed to major poverty and societal injustices. Continue reading CCH welcomes community organizer Bisma Shoukat

Chicago Tribune: Catholic Charities unveils showers for homeless in Chicago

Following the example of Pope Francis, who opened a shower room and laundry facility for the homeless in Rome three years ago, Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Chicago unveiled similar services inside its downtown headquarters Monday.

Services also include access to a clothing donation closet and a variety of social services. The agency also will continue to serve meals to the homeless five days a week out of a renovated and upgraded kitchen.

“Our guests will have comfort of a warm shower, toiletries, bedding, clothing,” said Monsignor Michael Boland, president of Catholic Charities. “These small mercies which most of us take for granted can help preserve health and restore hope to those who live at the margins of society. They can be a first step toward a life of self-sufficiency.”

For more than 17 years, Catholic Charities’ headquarters has been home to an evening supper program that serves sit-down dinners and to-go meals to more than 250 individuals and families five days a week.

Guests who come for a meal on Tuesday night have a chance to sign up for a 30-minute shower slot between 10 a.m. and noon the following day. Each shower client receives a towel, soap, shampoo, toothpaste, a razor, shaving cream, deodorant and a change of clothes. They also will be able to use the laundry services to wash and dry their clothes and bedding.

Up and running for the past two weeks, showers have been booked solid with a waiting list each Wednesday. The agency hopes to expand the program to more hours and days, but that capacity depends on volunteers.

The program at Catholic Charities is modeled after a similar ministry on Tuesday afternoons at Fourth Presbyterian Church on Michigan Avenue. Unlike shelters, both ministries offer bathing opportunities to clients who don’t live there.

According to the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, there are 80,384 homeless Chicagoans, including people who are relying on friends or loved ones for temporary residence.

“Thousands of people are experiencing homelessness in our city,” said Mary Tarullo, the coalition’s associate director of policy. “So we certainly have a long way to go in making sure everybody is housed. Showers are a great step in the right direction.”

“It’s serving a great need for places where people can take care of themselves in dignity,” she said.

Matthew Shay, 27, a substance abuse counselor who handles the intake for the pilot program, said the washrooms offer hope to people struggling with homelessness — both symbolically and practically speaking. Not only does water symbolize rebirth in rituals such as baptism, he said, but hot showers can also bring about a life-giving transformation.

Shay speaks from experience. He struggled with addiction and homelessness for about 18 months before receiving the help he needed from Catholic Charities.

“When they give up hygiene, they’re mentally giving up and feeling hopeless,” Shay said. “So when you provide that to somebody who doesn’t have it, it provides a sense of normalcy that common Americans take for granted. It’s a simple pleasure for us — simple pleasures that are really a privilege.”

Catholic News Agency: ‘Catholic Charities provides showers for homeless people’

 

Family homelessness in Chicago: 10,000 families, almost 80% doubled-up

The University of Chicago Urban Labs and CSH (Corporation for Supportive Housing) released a study today on family homelessness: Ending Family Homelessness Report: Understanding the scale and needs of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago.

This report, for the first time, combines deduplicated data from the Chicago Homeless Services System and the Chicago Public Schools. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless served on an advisory committee to the research project.

Key findings include:

  • In the past year, approximately 10,000 families experienced homelessness in Chicago. Four out of five of these families (just under 8,000) were living doubled-up with friends or relatives.
  • Only 13% of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago access services from the Continuum of Care.
  • Families accessing the shelter system overwhelmingly have income below the Federal Poverty Level. (Almost one in three self-report no income at the time of accessing services.) The majority are single-adult households headed by a female. Four out of 10 families in shelter self-report a disability, and one in five self-report a mental health problem.
  • Living doubled-up is the most common pathway to entering the shelter system. The majority of families (55.5%) who access shelter have previously experienced homelessness while living temporarily with others.
  • Fifty percent of families that contact the service system while at-risk of homelessness later entered shelter. Of those, half enter shelter within three months.

The reports predicts the housing needs of families that have entered the shelter system and been assessed, but those living doubled-up are not receiving assessments. The reason they have not been assessed is because the majority of the city’s current housing resources are federally funded by HUD. Families that are doubled-up do not meet HUD’s definition and therefore are ineligible for HUD’s housing resources.

Advocates are making a number of recommendations at the city and state level to address the need to better understand and assist doubled-up families as well as to address other findings from the report.

Policy Director Julie Dworkin, with CSH Illinois Program Director Betsy Benito and advocates present the family homelessness study. (Photo by Christy Savellano)

The groups supporting these recommendations are: CSH, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the HomeWorks campaign, Catholic Charities, Ounce of Prevention Fund, Heartland Alliance, and All Chicago.

On the city level, we recommend that we start to assess all doubled-up homeless families that present at school or daycare sites and connect them to resources to address their homelessness. Currently, those resources are very limited, so we also recommend that we begin to identify flexible local funding for housing and services that do not carry HUD’s restrictions. This would ensure that families who are doubled-up are defined as eligible by our service system for these new resources.

The report found that 31% percent of sheltered families had no income, 27% rely on benefits only, and 27% had income from employment. Because of those findings, we recommend that the city increase the enrollment of homeless families in community-based child care slots to 5% of all those enrolled, with an annual evaluation of how they are meeting this goal. Also, at the state level, we recommend that children from homeless families be presumed eligible for child care, with all family co-pays waived.

We also recommend the state increase its TANF cash assistance grant to 50% of the federal poverty line, which for a family of three would increase from $520 a month to $864 a month.

Finally, were concerned about the finding that nearly half of all families that enter the shelter system sought support services but were not prevented from becoming homeless. These families could have been prevented from entering the system, but funding for homelessness prevention has been cut drastically in recent years. In addition, the study found that many of the families were ineligible for reasons such as needing to prove ability to pay all future rent.

Because of this, we want to increase funding for homelessness prevention grants, which provide emergency cash grants to families to keep them in their housing. At the state level, we want to increase funding from $4.9 million to $6.9 million. We also recommend that the city commit $2 million of its own resources for prevention. We also recommend that the eligibility criteria for prevention be expanded so that more families that apply for help can be assisted.

The Urban Labs/CSH study was supported by the Polk Bros. Foundation, Chicago Community Trust, and Pierce Family Foundation.

– Julie Dworkin, Director of Policy

 

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Study finds 10,000 families experienced homelessness last year

By Mark Brown, columnist

An estimated 10,000 families experienced homelessness in Chicago at some point during the past year, according to a new study that suggests the city could identify them and intervene sooner.

The study is regarded as significant because it is the first to combine information from the city’s official database of homeless individuals with data from Chicago Public Schools, which tracks homeless students separately using a broader definition of homelessness.

The result is a count that tallies both families identified in the study as experiencing “literal homelessness” — living in shelters or on the streets — and the much larger number of homeless who are “doubled up” in living arrangements with relatives or friends.

Homeless advocates have been urging government policymakers for many years to recognize the needs of the doubled-up homeless. The study confirms families living in such unstable housing situations often end up in the shelter system later. It also provides unprecedented demographic insights into homeless families, which were defined as having at least one adult and one child.

The average size of a family accessing homeless services in Chicago is 3.3 members, slightly smaller than an average city family of 3.4 members. In those families, 70 percent have a single adult female, compared to 18 percent with two adults and just 9 percent with a single adult male.

The average age of the adults in those homeless families was 32, and most of the children were under the age of 10. Half of the homeless families reported having no income or income of less than $500 a month.

Graph of distribution of child age in families experiencing homelessness

Courtesy of UChicago Urban Labs report “Ending Family Homelessness Report: Understanding the scale and needs of families experiencing homelessness in Chicago.” (Provided)

Based on the study, a coalition of advocates led by the Corporation for Supportive Housing urged the city and state to direct more funds toward homeless prevention and to make doubled-up families eligible for services. The study also found that one in four adults in families receiving homeless services report some type disability, typically a mental health problem. Three-fourths of those families had previously sought homeless prevention funding, but were deemed ineligible.

The homeless groups say the city should coordinate its efforts by reaching out to families with students the school system has identified as homeless, both to offer assistance and to keep track of them.

RELATED:
• They don’t live under a bridge, but they’re still homeless
Homeless students need more than ‘token’ attention from CPS
• Question from Lower Wacker’s rousted homeless: ‘Where are the people gonna go?’

City’s eviction of Lower Wacker homeless camp slows, but doesn’t stop

Although the numbers are daunting, the report indicates the total of 10,000 homeless families in the city is actually an improvement.

The total was 12,500 just four years ago and has decreased steadily each year since then, the study found.

But researchers note the drop in homeless families may be the result of the city’s changing demographics, which have seen a disproportionate population loss of low-income and African-American residents.

The study by the University of Chicago Urban Labs found that family homelessness falls most heavily on African-Americans, who account for 77 percent of families experiencing literal homelessness and 86 percent of those who are doubled up.

On Wednesday, the city cited its own efforts to end family homelessness through the Families in Transition program as one cause for the reduction. The program has housed 88 of the 100 families that took part, said Department of Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler.

Urban Labs researchers project the number of homeless families in the city will hold steady, or see a slight uptick, during 2018.

Chicago Tribune: ‘We don’t have nowhere to go’ – Confusion persists after delayed evictions of Lower Wacker homeless encampment

By Tessa Weinberg

The piercing whine of drills hitting concrete echoed across Lower Wacker Drive as a person in a homeless encampment tried to sleep nearby.

Advocates with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless stood huddled as Chicago Department of Transportation workers drilled holes to erect tall black poles that would fence off an area along the site of a homeless encampment known as “the Triangle,” near Wabash Avenue and East Lower Wacker.

“Woah, they’re serious,” Chris Carter, who has been homeless for four years, said when he spotted the six poles Monday afternoon.

Carter, 50, is one of the dozens of homeless Chicagoans who have packed up their belongings and are leaving the area that once was home to about 50 people at a time.

Link to video interviews

By Monday afternoon, crates, blankets, a few bicycles and trash were left strewn across the damp ground. One tent remained, but bright orange CDOT signs warning that people and belongings needed to be gone by 8 a.m. Monday for construction already had driven most out.

However, confusion persisted when the scheduled evictions didn’t take place. A new sign was posted announcing the Triangle would be power-washed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Friday.

Ali Simmons, a street outreach worker with the Coalition for the Homeless who visits the encampment a few times a week, said the new sign and delayed evictions “make no sense.”

“There’s still people here. They didn’t move. They didn’t make an attempt to move. So I think that tends to support the fact that there was confusion on what was supposed to happen,” Simmons said. “You’ve got two different notices, saying two different things. Why post a power-washing notice for the 15th to give residents notice of this, if no one would be here?”

Multiple city departments, including the Police Department, Department of Family and Support Services, Department of Transportation, and Department of Streets and Sanitation are working in conjunction to fence off the encampment in an effort to target crime. Construction of the fence is expected to take place through June 22.

Diane O’Connell, a staff attorney with the Coalition for the Homeless, questioned the city’s intentions.

“I think that there’s crime that happens all over the city of Chicago, and to take an adverse action against a group of people based on a stereotype that that group of people is dangerous, is discrimination,” O’Connell said.

Two officials with CDOT declined to comment at the encampment or clarify when people needed to vacate.

“I can’t speak to the signs,” said Alisa Rodriguez, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services’ deputy commissioner of homeless programs. “But what I can tell you is that we haven’t asked anyone to move. Of course the intent is by the end of the week, CDOT will do the work that they need to do, and folks will need to vacate, but no one needs to move now, or not until Friday.”

However, the orange CDOT bulletins posted last week said all people and items needed to be vacated Monday and any belongings left would be “discarded by the City.”

Representatives of the city’s Transportation, Family and Support Services and Streets and Sanitation and Police departments said they could not provide clarification on when people have to leave.

Some people said they hadn’t been informed by the city when they needed to leave.

“I’m just trying to figure things out,” Carter said. “Who is responsible for doing all these things right here? Caging this up because of the homeless?”

The confusion surrounding the deadline creates a risk for people who are homeless who call the Triangle home, O’Connell said.

“If they don’t know when the city is going to finally, actually evict them and take possession of things that are here, it creates uncertainty and it creates a risk that if a person does need to go somewhere and do something, maybe when they’re not here their possessions get thrown away,” she said.

Among the belongings could be medication, personal documents, clothes and more, O’Connell said.

Carter and Terry Mardis, who said he had lived in the Triangle for the past 13 years, were some of the people who had already moved their belongings farther down Lower Wacker.

Carter said he has lived in the Triangle for the past three winters, and with the fence going in, he had no choice but to move.

Mardis, who stood in the Triangle on Monday with a sleeping bag under one arm, said he felt the construction showed the city considered being homeless a crime.

“But it’s not a crime,” said Mardis, 48. “We don’t have nowhere to go. We’re down here to live our life.”

Those at the encampment said their remaining options were slim.

“We’re safer down here,” Carter said. “We go down south there’s shooting down there. We go out west, there’s shooting over there. Go out north, we don’t belong around there. The city is segregated, so the homeless can’t go too far.”

The covered roads of Lower Wacker Drive provide warmth and protection, Mardis said.

Simmons said the Triangle was a place where people have found sanctuary, security and comfort. Building a fence won’t fix the issue in the long term, he said, while affordable housing would.

“Eventually we’re still going to be down here,” Carter said. “We’re just going to move down the street, and go down somewhere else. It’s going to be the same old, same old.”

Rodriguez rebutted claims that the city is criminalizing homelessness and only provides services when evictions are near.

“We’re under Lower Wacker regularly. This is nothing new. Nothing different,” Rodriguez said. “The only difference is that the fence is going up.”

But to Mardis, the fence makes all the difference.

It’s “really hurting me, because we’ve got to go. This is our house down here,” Mardis said with tears in his eyes. “We’ve got to stick up for our rights. And everybody’s got to stand up.”

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Chicago takes low-key approach to remove homeless camp from Lower Wacker

A city official on Monday talks to a homeless man who lives in The Triangle about services that are available to him as the city slowly begins to move the encampment on Lower Wacker Drive. | Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

By Mark Brown, columnist

City workers moved deliberatively Monday morning to begin removing a homeless encampment from an area of Lower Wacker Drive known as The Triangle.

Unlike the police show of force that characterized last summer’s eviction of tent cities beneath two Lake Shore Drive viaducts in Uptown, Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration took a low-key approach to ousting the homeless group that occupies a spot just west of Michigan Avenue.

An 8 a.m. deadline for the homeless residents to move their belongings came and went with no effort to physically move them.

It was nearly 10 a.m. before city social workers arrived to begin offering the last dozen stragglers another opportunity to accept a bed in a shelter or detox unit. They found one woman who took them up on the chance to go to detox.

Only two police officers were on the scene, and they were staying mostly on the periphery. A Salvation Army truck served chili mac and Kool-Aid.

By late morning, however, a city contractor began drilling holes in the pavement to erect fence posts — the clearest sign about the city’s intentions to make the area off limits to homeless people.

Despite the din, many homeless people lay asleep on the ground.

Many packed their belongings and moved down the street to another area of Lower Wacker. Others came and took their place.

A contingent from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless arrived early to stand watch to make sure nobody’s rights were violated but they didn’t have much to do.

The city has said it is closing the encampment for public safety reasons — both for the protection of the homeless people and for those who live and work in the area.

Advocates for the homeless say the city is just trying to move the homeless to a less visible location away from the busy roadway.

 

1999 Look Back: Chicago Tribune, ‘Lower Wacker to shut its gates on homeless, fences to be locked’

January 29, 1999

By Cindy Richards and Diane Struzzi

Three months after saying the fences it built along Lower Wacker Drive were not aimed at ridding the area of homeless people, the city has served notice that they will be evicted as of 6 p.m. Friday.

The fences that enclose the sidewalks and loading docks where the homeless sleep will be closed and locked for the first time Friday evening. From then on, the gates will be locked nightly from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., Assistant Corporation Counsel Alan H. Neff told attorneys for the homeless in a recent letter.

City officials had maintained in late October that they were fencing in the parking areas along the south side of Lower Wacker, ostensibly at the request of building owners, to deal with the problem of illegally parked cars.

And since then, the fence gates have stood open and unlocked, with the homeless continuing to camp out on the sidewalks near heating grates.

Several homeless men who still live on Lower Wacker said city workers or police told them over the past couple of weeks that they would have to move by 6 p.m. Friday. The men said they assume anything they can’t carry with them will be discarded.

But Friday’s planned lockdown won’t proceed without protest.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has invited Chicago icon and historian Studs Terkel to address a vigil at LaSalle Street and Lower Wacker Drive when the lockdown commences at 6 p.m. Friday.

Terkel said he will denounce the move to “evict people from a public space where they have been for years, where they disturbed nobody. What is happening to us as humans?”

Indeed, people have been living under Wacker Drive virtually since it opened in 1926. During the Great Depression, the street was home to thousands of jobless men who dubbed it “Hoover Hotel,” after President Herbert Hoover, whom they blamed for their plight.

Neither the building owners nor the city is taking responsibility for planning Friday’s coordinated lockdown, but if the plan moves the homeless elsewhere, the lockdown clearly will achieve the goals of both.

The city has been trying for years to rid Wacker Drive of its persistent homeless population. Their efforts have been thwarted by homeless advocates who called in the media or filed lawsuits to stop them.

Building owners, meanwhile, have continued to complain about the filth that homeless residents leave on their loading docks and the fear of tenants who have to pick their way past cardboard homes, empty liquor bottles and leering stares to get into the buildings.

With the fences, the city and the building owners appear to have hit on a solution that might work for both.

But homeless advocates had hoped for another answer.

“Instead of solving the problem, they’re moving people out. It’s just moving the furniture around,” said John Donahue, executive director of the coalition.

Donahue said his organization had hoped to ask building owners to contribute $80,000 to a fund to provide temporary housing for the 80 or so people who regularly sleep on Lower Wacker. Once they have housing, they could get other assistance like intensive mental-health or substance-abuse services and job training, Donahue said.

The proposal also suggested that the building owners hire 15 of the homeless–perhaps using them as gatekeepers or maintenance workers for the now-private spaces enclosed by the fences.

The more than 20 building owners paid sums ranging from $500 to $7,000 each to obtain city permits that grant them control over the fenced-in property.

Those permits were issued earlier this month, but the gates remained unlocked while building owners and the city negotiated the details of the new system, said Paul Colgan, a spokesman for the building owners’ association.

One of the street’s residents, Woodrow Wilson, who has lived there for a year and a half, said he plans to stay right where he is. But that may not be possible.

Armed with their “public way use permits,” the building owners can have their security forces remove trespassers, or they can call on the Chicago police to enforce their newly granted property rights.

Wilson said police told him any homeless people still on Lower Wacker Friday night would be hauled off to jail.

Wilson said workers with the city Department of Human Services told him that if he showed up at a West Side address, they would find him a room at the YMCA. But without an income, Wilson said he believes he’ll be sent to Haymarket House, a rehabilitation center–a place he doesn’t want to go. He was offered no other options, Wilson said.

“They’ll just have to take us to jail,” he said, resting in his bedroll Thursday morning.

Romell Smith, 36, who has lived on Lower Wacker for the last nine months, likely will move temporarily to his sister’s home in Elgin.

“They say they’re not doing it because we’re homeless, but because the cars are parked down here,” he said.

Meanwhile, lawyers for the Lower Wacker residents and the city are nearing a settlement on a lawsuit filed last year over a particularly aggressive sweep of the area by Streets and Sanitation workers in December 1997. Under the terms of a proposed settlement, the city would pay $45,000 to compensate residents for possessions lost during the sweep. The deal also was expected to set guidelines for future cleanups.

But the cleanup agreement could be moot after Friday. As building owners take control of the formerly public space, they also take responsibility for keeping it clean, relieving the city of any further responsibility.

Northwest Herald: City of Woodstock, police ban 17 people from Old Firehouse Assistance Center

Old Firehouse Assistance Center again at center of controversy

By Brittany Keeperman

The city of Woodstock and the Woodstock Police Department have banned at least 17 people from the Old Firehouse Assistance Center.

The Old Firehouse Assistance Center offers meals, haircuts, showers, medical care and social services to people experiencing homelessness. The site operates out of the city-owned Old Firehouse at 120 W. South St. near the Square and City Hall. The McHenry County Housing Authority operates the center.

The ban notices circulated in May after an email sent from Woodstock Deputy Police Chief Jeffrey Parsons to Mayor Brian Sager, City Manager Roscoe Stelford, Police Chief John Lieb and Deputy Chief Ray Lanz. The email was titled, “Top 20 individuals with negative police interaction” and was obtained by the Northwest Herald through a Freedom of Information Act request.

“Below and attached you will find a list of the top 20 individuals who are associated with OFAC, whom we have the most negative police interaction with,” Parsons wrote.

The list includes the reasons for the interaction, ranging from littering to attempted murder to “mental health” or “alcoholic.”

The ban issued to some of those people reads:

“The city of Woodstock has identified you as an individual with numerous violations of city ordinances and local laws, as well as many negative contacts with our law enforcement personnel. Effective immediately, the city has elected to ban you from obtaining services at the Old Firehouse Assistance Center.”

If a person who received the notice returns to the center, “the exterior area” of OFAC or “property surrounding City Hall,” the police department could charge them with criminal trespassing, according to the notice.

People still can receive services at the McHenry County Housing Authority, Thresholds, PADS through Pioneer Center, the Woodstock Alano Club and Family Health Partnership in Crystal Lake, according to the notice. Housing Authority officials said those options weren’t necessarily viable.

“It’s sort of a step back to where we were before the Firehouse existed,” McHenry County Housing Authority’s community services director Sue Rose said. “The services are scattered, and asking people who have no transportation, who may have mental health issues, who may be present at an agency while they are intoxicated … is in essence not allowing them to get the services they need.”

Sager said the intention is to avoid a repeat of last summer, when residents raised concerns about homeless people around town and illegal behavior such as public urination and drinking in public.

“PADS has closed for the season,” Sager said. “It was determined that we needed to take very solid action, very quickly to avoid the experiences and circumstances that happened last summer.”

People are able to appeal the ban, and city officials, OFAC staff and police officials will meet weekly to talk about the issue, Sager said.

“We will review that list and dialogue, whether the ban should be broader, whether individuals are appealing and should be considered for reversal or have made significant and constructive progress in their transition plans,” he said.

Rose said she understood the city’s position, but the conflict might make matters worse.

“Now they have no place to eat, no place to shower and no place to get the social services they need to try and address these behaviors,” she said. “We don’t support the ban.”

The city recently renewed its lease with the Old Firehouse Assistance Center. An ordinance authorizing the lease agreement cites the city’s desire to control who has access to the site, according to city documents.

Lawrence Wagner, senior attorney with the advocacy group Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said that Woodstock officials likely have the right to dictate who uses the center because it owns the property. But that doesn’t mean this is the proper approach, he said.

“My initial thought is this is more of the same,” he said. “I understand that any city wants to deal with the homeless population, but they always seem to approach it in the wrong way.

“Instead of trying to provide permanent housing, they push [the homeless] to the side – mainly because they don’t want them to be visible to people in the community who may complain about their presence.”

Wagner said he never has seen another city bar people from social service centers. The coalition is in the process of investigating the way the city treats its homeless population, he said.

The coalition is particularly interested in several ordinances that the city enacted last year related to how long people can stay in public parks and the Square.

“In my opinion, they are clearly designed to keep the homeless out of public spaces,” he said. “We believe right now the ordinances violate the Bill of Rights for the homeless. They seem neutral on the face, but intent and enforcement will violate homeless rights.”

Chicago Tribune: Advocates criticize plan to fence off Lower Wacker homeless encampment

By Tony Briscoe

The city plans to fence off a homeless encampment along Lower Wacker Drive, a move it says is intended to reduce crime, but one that homeless advocates say raises legal questions.

The Chicago Department of Transportation posted notices around a small barricaded area near Wabash Avenue and East Lower Wacker Drive, known as “the Triangle,” informing members of the homeless contingent who live there to gather their belonging and leave by Monday. Though the bulletins says the site will be “closed for construction” until June 22, the city will be erecting a fence around the area, which will remain in place indefinitely, according to CDOT.

The Transportation Department said it was instructed by the Chicago Police Department to fence off the area for public safety reasons. Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed the move was undertaken by multiple agencies in response to a wide range of criminal activities.

“For the last several months, CPD has been working with city partners to address criminal incidents taking place on Lower Wacker including, narcotics dealing, robberies, street racing and prostitution,” Guglielmi said in a statement.

Guglielmi didn’t specifically mention gun violence, but arguably the most high-profile crime this year — the fatal shooting of Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer — may have had ties to Lower Wacker. On Feb. 13, officers approached a man on Lower Wacker about a recent shooting and drug sales, but he ran off.

Bauer overheard a radio dispatch about the chase and spotted a suspect matching the description near the Thompson Center. Bauer was fatally shot while trying to pursue the man.

Shomari Legghette, a 44-year-old four-time felon, was charged with first-degree murder, armed violence, and weapons and drug offenses. He has pleaded not guilty.

This year, Chicago police have been called to Lower Wacker for at least three dozen crimes, including assault involving a handgun April 10 and an armed robbery with a firearm May 26, according to public records.

At a news conference held near the encampment Thursday, members of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that has represented homeless people living on Lower Wacker, objected to the decision to vacate the area and called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other agencies to provide housing to those living on the street rather than simply displacing them.

Diane O’Connell, staff attorney for the coalition, said the city hasn’t mentioned criminal activity as the impetus to block access to the Triangle, but she said it’s not fair to generalize the entire encampment as criminals.

“There’s absolutely a legal argument that if the city’s whole purpose is to discriminate against people based on their homelessness that is a violation of the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act,” O’Connell said.

“Certainly, there is criminal activity all over the city,” O’Connell added. “But if you generalize that activity and say it is the fault of one group, and then you take an adverse action that hurts that group, that’s the definition of discrimination — that’s a stereotype.”

After the notice was posted, many people who live in the Triangle had already moved. Charles Hunter, 34, who moved a few of his bags to a new location, was among those still needing to do more packing .

Hunter, who lived in the Pullman neighborhood, said he started sleeping on Lower Wacker on and off about three years ago. He said he was a loner at first but found a sense of community in the Triangle, the barricaded area wedged between two forking lanes of traffic.

The dim lighting, gang graffiti etched on the walls and roaring sound of traffic may seem like an unappealing place to live to most, but many of those who sleep on the makeshift cardboard beds only want a place to stay, Hunter said.

That’s more difficult for those who may be destitute or have a checkered past, like Hunter, who was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of heroin in February, and has previously been arrested for panhandling and trespassing.

“We do our part to try to make it stay clean, beautify it, to make sure that no negative stuff is happening downtown,” Hunter said as he swept up trash amid the dozen or so makeshift beds. “You got a lot of people and a lot of love.”

The decision to wall off the area follows a street sweep last month in which workers seized homeless people’s property and forced them to move, O’Connell said. The coalition said the tactics violated the city’s own street cleaning policy, which it adopted in 2015 in a settlement agreement reached with Lower Wacker residents who were represented by coalition attorneys.

It was unclear whether the coalition would file a legal challenge to the street sweep or the eviction of homeless people living in the Triangle. O’Connell said it was evident that fencing off areas was part of an ongoing effort that she has seen along Lower Wacker, including areas near State Street and Lower Wacker and in the 300 block of Wacker Drive.

“If you just drive along Lower Wacker, you’ll see that these fences are all over the place,” O’Connell said. “Every year I’ve worked at the coalition, more of these have come up.”