Chicago Tribune: Saving lives, saving money: Hospitals set up homeless patients with permanent housing

By Alexia Elejalde-Ruiz

When Latesha Holman was homeless, she was a regular in Chicago’s emergency rooms. Sometimes she’d go four times in a single week, battling asthma and a raft of other health problems, though often she just sought refuge from the cold.

Not anymore. Holman, 45, has spent this nasty winter tucked in her cozy basement apartment, kept warm by a space heater, her morning mug of coffee and the joy of babysitting her infant granddaughter.

Her symptoms have improved. Her depression has eased. Her hospital visits — and the high costs they incur — have plunged.

“Since I’ve been here I have never felt this good, really,” Holman said as she sat in her tidy living room, still adorned with a white plastic Christmas tree she bought for the holidays.

Holman owes the roof over her head to University of Illinois Hospital, among a handful of local hospitals starting to invest in permanent housing for chronically homeless patients in order to improve their health and reduce their costly emergency room visits.

Link to video interview of Latesha Holman

The idea is that providing the homeless with stable housing in the long run costs less than leaving them to fend for themselves on the streets, where they are more vulnerable to illness, violence and desperation that ultimately drive up health care costs. U. of I. Hospital, in partnership with the nonprofit Center for Housing and Health, is leading an effort locally to get health care providers to put money toward getting the homeless housed.

“The solution is cheaper than the problem,” said Stephen Brown, director of preventive emergency medicine at the hospital and of its Better Health Through Housing initiative.

U. of I. Hospital, in the Illinois Medical District on the Near West Side, this week announced it will extend a pilot program it launched in 2015, committing an additional $250,000 to place 25 more chronically homeless patients into permanent homes. 

While the housing itself, in scattered sites throughout the city and suburbs, is funded by grants from the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the hospital pays $1,000 per month for each patient in the program to cover supportive services, including a case manager who helps participants get on their feet. That’s far less than the $3,000-per-day bill some chronically homeless patients ring up in the ER, the hospital said.

Results from the pilot suggest it is worth the investment. The average monthly health care cost per client in the pilot dropped 18 percent after they were provided with permanent housing, to $4,785 from $5,879, the hospital said.

The individual effort won’t help the hospital’s bottom line, Brown said. But he calculates that if every hospital in the area agrees to help house 10 chronically homeless patients, it could make a major dent in homelessness in the city and save money systemwide.

Cost reduction is not the only motivation for the investment. The core driver is health equity, Brown said, and the recognition that homelessness itself is a dangerous health condition that hospitals should help alleviate.

“If someone came in with cancer, we would do extraordinary things to keep them alive,” Brown said. “The irony is that if someone with a dangerous condition like homelessness comes in, we dismiss them.”

Homeless people are at high risk of pulmonary disease, traumatic brain injury, HIV/AIDS and head and neck cancers, possibly because of higher rates of smoking and alcohol use. Their expected lifespans are 25 years shorter than average, according to some studies.

Most of the major hospital systems in the area, including Northwestern Memorial and University of Chicago Medicine, are at the table on the homeless housing issue, Brown said, and a handful have programs underway.

Swedish Covenant Hospital, in the Ravenswood neighborhood, recently agreed to invest $75,000 to provide 10 chronically homeless patients with permanent housing and support services for a year.

Rush University Medical Center, in the Illinois Medical District, plans to launch a pilot program this spring to provide housing and support services for up to five chronically homeless patients.

Both programs are modeled after the one at U. of I. Hospital and partner with the Center for Housing and Health, a subsidiary of the AIDS Foundation, to identify available apartments via 28 supportive housing providers with HUD grants. Presence Health plans to launch a similar pilot this year.

Separately, the Cook County Health and Hospitals System in August partnered with the nonprofit Housing Forward to connect homeless patients with 33 permanent supportive housing units in west and south suburban Cook County. The system has committed to spending $400,000 for the first 12 months.

“You have to spend money to ultimately save money, or better use the resources you have,” said Mary Sajdak, senior director of integrated care at the county health system. Some homeless patients eager to get out of the cold have gotten good at describing a set of symptoms that they know will land them in a bed for a few days, she said.

Julie Dworkin, director of policy for the Chicago Coalition of the Homeless, said tapping local and private funding sources for housing the homeless is critical given uncertain federal funding.

“There is really great evidence that if you get people into permanent housing and they have intensive support services, that can resolve homelessness for them permanently,” she said.

There were about 5,657 homeless people living on Chicago’s streets or in shelters on a given night last year, according to a city count, down 4 percent from 2016. But most homeless people stay with friends or family, and if you count them the city’s homeless population is upward of 82,200, said Dworkin, whose estimate is based on Census data.

One lesson U. of I. Hospital learned from its pilot is that it sees far more homeless patients than it realized. It initially identified 48 homeless patients in the emergency room, based on staff observations, but as it scrutinized admissions data it found many more people list homeless shelters or hospitals as their home addresses, Brown said.

The hospital now has 616 people in its system who are likely homeless and estimates it has seen more than 3,000 homeless patients since 2010. It reviewed the hospital usage of a sample of homeless patients and found 32 percent were in the highest cost classification, which means their care cost seven to 70 times more than the typical patient.

While many are sick, and their health problems are exacerbated by homelessness, those just seeking warmth are getting the priciest bed in town. It costs about $1,500 a night for a bed in the emergency room, Brown said.

“If we got them a place in the Four Seasons, it would be cheaper,” he said.

While most of the patients invited to participate in the housing program are “superutilizers” — meaning they visit the emergency room more than eight times are year — that’s not the only criteria. A team that includes staff from the ER, social work, psychiatry, oncology and other departments convenes to discuss which patients’ health would be most helped by having housing, such as those with multiple diseases that require frequent outpatient visits.

All participants must meet HUD’s definition of being chronically homeless, which means they have been homeless for at least a year or on four separate occasions over the last three years.

Picking the right people to thrive is a challenge. Of the 26 participants in U. of I. Hospital’s initial pilot, just 11 remain in their housing units. Four people died, one entered hospice, two could not live independently and eight left the program for various reasons.

Going forward, it may be better recruit patients who aren’t so severely ill, so that they can continue to improve, and put the sicker people in more appropriate environments like skilled nursing homes, said Peter Toepfer, executive director of the Center for Housing and Health.

The transition to housing isn’t easy. Holman, who moved into her cozy basement apartment in Chicago’s East Garfield Park neighborhood a year ago, said it was difficult to live by herself after being on the street, off and on, for 15 years, often sleeping in abandoned houses or in shelters surrounded by other homeless people. She didn’t know how to go food shopping or stay on top of her medications or many doctors’ appointments: liver, heart, dentist, foot, psychiatrist. Alone in her apartment, she felt afraid.

She credits her improvement to the help of her case manager and her children, with whom she has reconnected since moving into her new home. Now, she said, it’s “a piece of cake,” though she still feels lonely.

Larry Haynes, Holman’s case manager, said Holman was nervous at first about the program, and a key challenge was building trust and rapport to help her understand the importance of seeing doctors for preventive care. While some participants may be steered toward job training or education to become more independent, the priority for Holman is to stabilize her health, said Haynes, housing case manager at Christian Community Health Center, which subleases the apartment to Holman. He has been encouraging her to join a local church to make friends.

Holman said she feels better since gaining a stable home and regular medical care. She has an asthma pump for the first time. Her biggest goal for 2018 is to stop smoking.

The mother of four also has been able to sit down with her children — aged 17 through 26 — and clarify misconceptions they had about her life. Earlier this month, she cooked up a feast in her spacious kitchen to surprise her youngest daughter on her birthday, an emotional moment for all.

Her daughter later told her, “Mom, I want to be like you when I grow up, have my own place,” Holman recalled. She’d never heard that before.

WBEZ: Homeless couple sues city, claims targeted harassment

Editor’s Note: The CCH Law Project is co-counseling this case with the law firm of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd.

A homeless couple is suing the city of Chicago and some of its employees over what they claim is repeated harassment over the last three years.

WBEZ’s Odette Yousef reports.

Amie Smith and Shawn Moore claim that city workers threw away at least eight tents they’ve lived in. WBEZ reported on one of those incidents late last year.

Diane O’Connell, their attorney from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, says that’s not even the half of it.

“By destroying their property, forcing them to move repeated times, and by other conduct, the city of Chicago has violated their right to equal treatment, their right to privacy in their possessions, and their right to use public space.”
O’Connell says they have those rights under the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act. The city’s law department did not immediately respond.

Listen to the radio report

WMAQ Channel 5: Chicago official calls displacement of homeless during frigid temperatures ‘unfortunate’

By Mary Ann Ahern

WATCH the Channel 5 report here

The city of Chicago admitted Thursday cleaning out a viaduct in freezing temperatures, where the homeless had taken shelter, was a mistake.

The city threw out all of their belongings and now says the incident was “unfortunate.”

Ryan from Woodridge, just 10 years old, had brought backpacks to the homeless at the viaduct at Belmont and Kedzie–many of those gifts thrown out as garbage.

NBC 5 went back to that viaduct Thursday and spoke to a woman who has lived on the streets for more than a year.

Blanca is back at Belmont and Kedzie, where she lives under this viaduct when she’s not riding the “El” train to stay warm.

She lost all of her belongings when the city cleaned this viaduct Wednesday — even the backpacks donated by young Ryan.

“And my blanket, all my Christmas stuff… they took everything,” she said.

Chicago’s Coalition for the Homeless and Ald. Carlos Ramirez Rosa are critical of the city’s cleanup–when the temperatures are hovering near zero.

“I’m very upset that this is the way the city went about this, they didn’t provide my office with notification, and they didn’t go about this the right way, I think that it was a mistake,” Rosa said.

Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the CCH, says the homeless just want housing.

“How do we provide real resources and support to people who are homeless and have to live in this situation?” he asked.

Another question posited is whether the city will continue with the viaduct cleanups or wait until it’s not quite so frigid.

“What happened yesterday was unfortunate,” Alisa Rodriguez, of the city’s Homeless Services. “We definitely want to make sure that it does not happen again like that.”

Rodriguez, who is the city’s point person for the homeless, notes while the clean up was clearly posted — when the weather turned as cold as it did adjustments should have been made.

“When it’s single digits the utmost important things to remember is the safety of these individuals and to make sure cleaning becomes secondary,” she said.

Blanca is grateful for coats left for the homeless Thursday, trying on several before she heads off to ride the “El” during the coldest hours of the evening.

The city says it will work with all of its partners in communicating how to better balance the issues of cleaning up the viaducts at the same time being aware of how cold it is outside.

Chicago Reader: Mistreatment of the homeless

Chicago police commonly confiscate and throw away the tents of the homeless

CPD’s policy seems more concerned with optics than with law and order.



From Chicago Reader’s “Worst of Chicago 2017” edition

It’s important for me as a progressive stereotype to listen to public radio while driving and to get outraged at the news. If my hackles are especially raised, I will even tweet about it. (Like I said, progressive stereotype.) This is what transpired in October after I heard a report from WBEZ’s Odette Yousef about the common Chicago policing practice of confiscating and throwing away the tents of the homeless. According to Yousef’s story, one explanation the Chicago Police Department gives to defend the practice is a law that says it’s illegal to block a public thoroughfare. CPD cites a provision of the city’s municipal code: “No person shall use any public way for the storage of personal property, goods, wares or merchandise of any kind. Nor shall any person place or cause to be placed in or upon any public way, any barrel, box, hogshead, crate, package or other obstruction of any kind, or permit the same to remain thereon longer than is necessary to convey such article to or from the premises abutting on such sidewalk.”

OK, let’s say I park my car on a sidewalk. A cop would write me a ticket and tell me to move along, but I think we’d all be shocked if he told me to get out of the car, proceeded to smash my vehicle into a cube in front of me, and then wouldn’t even let me keep the cube. (Would he throw my hogshead of mead into the trash too?)

Regardless of the laws human beings who are homeless may or may not be breaking by setting up a tent in public, the CPD seems more concerned with optics than with law and order. The logic of the policy to a progressive stereotype such as myself seems to be: homeless people should not be publicly visible and they will be intimidated and destabilized until they’re made invisible. Never mind that there isn’t room enough in all of Chicago’s shelters to accommodate the thousands who are homeless. Even if there was, shelters are often not stable, safe places to stay.

What would help create more stability for these folks? I can think of a dozen things off the top of my head, many of which are a part of the ongoing work of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, none of which are stealing and destroying the property, shelter, privacy, and peace of our fellow Chicagoans most in need.   

ABC7: Chance the Rapper hosts party at Field Museum to help the homeless

By Stacy Baca and Cheryl Burton

“We get our people involved, we get our merchandise involved…every resource we have. And when we partner with a group like SocialWorks, we go all in,” said Bradley Nardick, Bargains in a Box.

There was music and dancing and free goodies among the dinosaurs.

While the party was free for needy students, those who can afford it were asked to donate $15 to SocialWorks and winter gear for the homeless. The effort was not lost on even Chance’s youngest fans.

“It means to me very a lot, because he gives people things to those in need and all of that, and it’s pretty good,” Shaylah Clay said.

In Chicago, 82,000 people are homeless, 82 percent of them are doubling up, like couch surfing or staying in a shelter.

“We know that a lot of homelessness isn’t seen, it’s hidden. It’s really important for people to recognize when you see someone on the street that’s just a sliver of the problem,” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director, Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

In fact, 18,000 CPS students are homeless. Statewide, that number jumps to 50,000.


Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Homeless memorial service honors anonymous lives

Benjamin Soto Ramirez was a late entry to the program for Tuesday’s Chicago Homeless Persons Memorial service at Old St. Patrick’s Church.

Ramirez, 67, was beaten to death over the weekend, his body discovered on the sidewalk near the doorway where he usually slept in East Ukrainian Village. 

Most homeless people don’t die quite so dramatically.

They pass quietly, often out of sight, their deaths more likely an unconfirmed rumor to those who knew them on the street than the basis for a news story.

Many never get a funeral. Some of their bodies go unclaimed at the morgue.

It was with that in mind that the annual memorial service was first organized in 2010 by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Ignatian Spirituality Project and Old St. Pat’s.

The service provides an opportunity to both pay respects to the dead and call attention to those who remain homeless.

The highlight of the program is the reading of the names of homeless people known to have died in the past year.

As each name is read aloud, a student carries a candle in honor of that individual to the front of the church. It can be an emotional experience.

I say “known” to have died because it’s not as if there is any official list. The names are submitted by homeless shelters familiar with the program.

It is understood that the list is not complete, which is why the candle procession always ends with a nod to “those whose names are known only to God.”

There are 33 names on this year’s list. Where possible, the organizers try to include at least a sentence about each person.

Marcus Faleti, an alcoholic who froze to death at age 58 in Wicker Park in early January, will be remembered as someone who “loved reading the Sun-Times and Wall Street Journal.”

Moriah Ishmael will be honored as “someone who was very respectful and a joy to be around. All Moriah wanted was a place to call his own.”

Will Kelly “was a good friend who helped many people.”

Wesley Sharp “was a kind, respectful and patient man” who will be “missed dearly by friends.”

William Carter died of cancer.

Durell Thomas “was hardworking and just looking for a safe place to stay.” Rhonda died of MRSA. Stanislaw Gal “left behind a wife and kids.”

But sadly even that scant information is often unavailable.

In some cases, all that’s known is when the person died: Ray W. and Nancy in January, Yacob G. in May, Leonard S. in July, C. Glover in August, John G. in September, Christina Kostoff and Patrick S. in October, Tommy Irby in December.

Then there are those who will be recognized only by name: Timothy Griffin, Henry Hartage, Terry King, Andre Perry, Larry Singleton, Angela Williams, Lewis Frost, Bethelynne Johnson, Michael Erl, Rick Berry, Barbara McHenry, Renard Parrish, Claude Michaelis and Kevin Lawson.

As someone who believes every person has a story to tell, that always bothers me.

There’s a common perception of homeless people as dangerous. Some can be, of course, but more often they are victims.

“Our guests are vulnerable. They are vulnerable in so many ways,” said Ed Jacob of Franciscan Outreach, one of the city’s leading providers of homeless services and a sponsor of the memorial service.

“It’s not just exposure to the elements. It’s not just the cold. They don’t have the stability. They don’t have the sense of security that you and I would have,” Jacob said.

Tonight’s memorial at Old St. Pat’s, 700 W. Adams, is scheduled to begin at 6:30 p.m.

I learned late Monday of another dead homeless man, Perry Brisby, 49, who was struck by a hit-and-run driver on Dec. 4 in the 2000 block of South Emerald. He died Sunday at Stroger Hospital.

They’ll need to light another candle.

Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Report says homeless counts miss the mark

By Mark Brown, columnist

One night each January, hundreds of volunteers spread out across Chicago in an effort to count the city’s homeless population.

This task, known as the annual Point-In-Time Count, is replicated in communities across the country under guidelines proscribed by the federal government.

The count is then used to apportion federal dollars for programs benefiting the homeless.

That process is deeply flawed, resulting in a significant undercount of America’s homeless population and in poorly informed public policy, according to a report issued Wednesday by the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty.

The national findings echo concerns often raised here by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless — and occasionally amplified by me — regarding how the extent of homelessness in Chicago is greatly understated.

The problem is the Point-In-Time Count recognizes only homeless people who can be found that particular night, either living on the street or staying in a homeless shelter.

One obvious shortcoming: Many homeless people on the street try to avoid being seen, either out of personal safety concerns or fear they will be forced to leave their hidden place of shelter.

Less obvious is that the federal count also leaves out the much larger number of homeless families and individuals who live “doubled up” with relatives or friends because they have nowhere else to go, often creating unstable situations that are worse than being in a homeless shelter.

Last year’s Point-In-Time Count for Chicago yielded a tally of 5,657 homeless persons.

But as I reported in April, the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless analyzed U.S. Census data to better calculate the “doubled up” households and concluded that 82,212 people were homeless in Chicago at some point during 2015. The coalition is currently updating its estimate.

The report from the National Law Center on Homelessness & Poverty also notes federal guidelines fail to take into account that homelessness is often transitory, with people going in and out of homelessness, meaning that many more individuals will become homeless over the course of a year than on any given night.

The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, which oversees the annual count, announced Wednesday a national homeless population of 553,742 in 2017.

That’s an increase of less than 1 percent over 2016, but the first increase since 2010, HUD officials said. Most of the increase was attributed to unsheltered homeless people living on the West Coast.

I’ve always made peace with the Point-In-Time Count on the basis that it is what it is.

There is value to a physical count, even one that is flawed. Tangible results are preferable to estimates. If you understand the annual street count is only showing you the tip of the iceberg, then you’re good to go.

Where it can go wrong is if public officials make decisions on the basis of the count, declaring homelessness to be down, when a lower count actually may have been due to other factors such as changes in the weather from one year to the next.

The city of Chicago reported that its 2017 homeless count was a 4 percent reduction from the 5,889 homeless individuals tallied in 2016. But a closer reading revealed the city used a more stringent methodology in 2017 for counting homeless people sleeping overnight on the CTA, which accounted for much of the drop. The weather was also milder on the night of the 2017 count.

A national homeless advocacy group reported Wednesday that the federal government’s method of counting homeless people results in a serious undercount. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

A city spokesperson said Chicago complies with HUD’s requirements for the Point-In-Time Count, but “also embraces different methodologies to ensure we have the most comprehensive data on this vulnerable population.”

Those extra steps have included participating in a national research and policy initiative focused on runaway, homeless and unstably housed youth, she said.

Chicago’s 2018 homeless count is scheduled for the night of Jan. 25. Results are made public months later.

When they are released, keep in mind you’re only seeing part of the picture. Marc USA supports Chicago homeless with pro bono campaign

By Larissa Faw

Marc USA is seeking to help Chicago homeless this holiday season with its pro bono advocacy campaign that raises awareness and urges financial support for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.

Launching this week to coincide with the national Homeless Awareness Week, the creative proclaims, “Let’s make Chicago a 4-star city for everyone” by leveraging Chicago’s 4-star flag that symbolizes for most residents the city’s top quality of life.

Ads show well-known Chicago neighborhoods that would likely rate “four stars” are contrasted with the “half-star rated” viaducts and street corners that serve as homes for thousands of Chicagoans. The spot ends with a call-to-action seeking donations.

Reel Chicago names Marc USA 4-star city video its “Reel Ad of the Week”

The integrated campaign includes 30- and 60-second videos running as broadcast and digital PSAs as well as print and outdoor versions.

A mobile donation platform supports a text-to-donate message on outdoor, print and TV components.  There’s also a link in the digital executions.

The goal is to make it easy for people to act when they see the campaign, says the agency. It’s about small donations from many people.

This work was driven inside the agency by several Chicago-based MARCers who were deeply affected by the sights of homelessness in the city during last year’s colder than usual winter. Similar to last year’s Know No about sexual consent that evolved in Chicago, associates in each office are encouraged to take on causes that matter to them.


WGN TV: Fighting homelessness: ‘What we’re going through right now, I don’t wish that on anyone’

By Gaynor Hall and Pam Grimes

CHICAGO — By one estimate, more than 80,000 Chicagoans are struggling with homelessness. Think about it — that would be the entire population of a city like Champaign.

About 18,000 of them are Chicago Public School students. Housing advocates say it’s a growing problem we cannot address, unless we acknowledge the tremendous need.

In a 2-part series, WGN’s Gaynor Hall looks at homelessness in Chicago. Chicago Coalition for the Homeless Executive Director Doug Schenkelberg is featured throughout the first story.

The series also reports on developing “Tiny Homes” to help house those who are homeless. That effort is spearheaded in Chicago by Tracy Baim, a CCH Board member and Windy City Times publisher.

LINK to the WGN video reports

For more information, visit the following links:

Producer Pam Grimes and Photojournalists Mike D’Angelo, Reed Nolan and Kevin Doellmann contributed to this report.

WBEZ: Where can homeless people pitch tents in Chicago?

By Odette Yousef

Homeless couple Shawn Moore and Amie Smith said city workers have thrown out more than a dozen of their tents in the past two years. Yet, they said they still don’t understand where they can — and can’t — pitch a tent in Chicago and why.

The couple said they first tried to set up tents on the sidewalks of lower-level streets downtown near Millennium Park, but police regularly rousted them from those locations. So they searched for an even more secluded spot and eventually found a small patch of concrete a few blocks east.

The new spot, just off Lake Shore Drive near Randolph Street, offered a variety of benefits. They said the highway overhead protected their belongings from the rain. And because the spot is not a sidewalk, they were not obstructing pedestrians. Best of all, they said, was the magnificent view of Lake Michigan.

Smith and Moore said their location off a Lake Shore Drive exit ramp affords them privacy, protection from the rain and a magnificent view. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Moore said that two weeks after they settled in, police discovered their new location and came by every day in an effort to get them to move — again. Now, the couple said, city workers take their tents at least once a month. To prevent their belongings from ending up in the back of a garbage truck, they said one person has to be there at all times, which is time not spent on things like searching for a job.

“[You’re] not going to find many places that’s not actually in somebody’s way,” Moore said. “We’ve been fortunate enough to find a couple, but I’m sure it’s not going to be many more if they run us off of this one.”

City workers remove Smith and Moore’s tent from an area just off Lake Shore Drive near Randolph Street. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Moore and Smith aren’t alone. Residents who lack stable housing pitch tents throughout the city. But those tents, which offer freedom and privacy not found in homeless shelters, also put them in the crosshairs of city workers. Lawyers for homeless people said the city’s rules on tents are vague and the enforcement is uneven.

Why live in tents?

Smith and Moore have also pitched tents on the lower levels of some downtown streets. They said staying near the downtown business district should make it easier to find jobs, but they also are reluctant to leave their tent unattended because they fear city workers will confiscate it. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Chicago had 5,657 homeless people in early 2017, according to a city report on homelessness. City officials and homeless advocates said they don’t know how many of those people are setting up tents as makeshift shelters. But the city report, which some advocates believe drastically undercounts the homeless population, found 1,561 people living in places not meant for human habitation, such as on sidewalks or in parks.

In April, Department of Family and Social Services deputy commissioner Alisa Rodriguez said the city does not have enough space at shelters for all the known homeless people. The acknowledgement came during a hearing about a proposed tent city in front of a shuttered elementary school in the Uptown community.


That means city officials acknowledged that some people may have little choice but to live outside because of capacity limits at shelters and a deficit of affordable housing. As seen throughout Chicago, some of them live in tents.

The municipal code says the city can limit tent use

Shawn Smith and Amie Moore said Chicago police officers regularly visit them to post these notices of intention to remove the couple’s tent. The notices cite municipal ordinance and a non-binding agreement on sidewalk cleaning policies as reasons for confiscating the couple’s property. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

So where can homeless Chicagoans pitch a tent? One thing city officials point to is a provision in the city’s municipal code.

According to the code: “No person shall use any public way for the storage of personal property, goods, wares or merchandise of any kind. Nor shall any person place or cause to be placed in or upon any public way, any barrel, box, hogshead, crate, package or other obstruction of any kind, or permit the same to remain thereon longer than is necessary to convey such article to or from the premises abutting on such sidewalk.”

The code doesn’t specifically mention tents, but city officials indicated the spirit of the rule is not to obstruct the sidewalk.

Jennifer Rottner, a spokeswoman for the city’s Department of Family and Social Services, added that some exceptions may be made for tents, but only if the city grants permission.

“While all residents are welcome to use the public way, they do not have the right to obstruct the public way or keep tents or structures on the public way without a permit,” Rottner wrote in an email to WBEZ.

But Rottner did not know what type of permit was required or how to apply for it.

Once Streets and Sanitation workers throw Smith and Moore’s tent in a city garbage truck, the police officers and other city employees leave. Smith and Moore said they will spend the next few hours panhandling to purchase a new tent that they will put up in the same location that night. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

While city officials cite municipal code, Illinois also has one of the strongest laws in the country when it comes to protecting the rights of homeless people. The Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, passed in 2013, affirms that Illinois residents may not be treated any differently simply because they don’t have a home.

Matthew Piers, an attorney with Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym who is helping represent Moore and Smith, said the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act and the municipal code together mean the city can impose some restrictions on tents — like limiting what times they can be up — but don’t allow the prohibition of tents outright.

“Certainly the city couldn’t validly say you couldn’t pitch a tent in your backyard,” Piers said. “As long as they’re not blocking the public way, or creating a nuisance or even inconvenience to anybody else, I would seriously question any attempt to limit their use of tents.”

Moore and Smith’s noted that their tent overlooking the lake was not on a sidewalk.

Two police officers told WBEZ a third reason for taking the couple’s tent in July. They said tents were not allowed in the central business district. Anthony Guglielmi, spokesman for the police department, referred questions about the officers’ claim to the city’s Law Department and Department of Family and Social Services.

Bill McCaffrey, a spokesman for the Law Department, said no such law exists.

The city says it takes tents because of a non-binding agreement

City officials cite another basis for removing tents, a legal settlement called the Bryant Agreement.

The city reached the settlement with 16 homeless people in 2015. The agreement spells out how the city will conduct cleanings of sidewalk areas where homeless people live. It also lists what — and how many — personal possessions homeless people can keep with them.

McCaffrey, the Law Department spokesman, pointed to the agreement when asked about where homeless people can have tents in the city. In an email, he rattled off a list of items prohibited under the agreement: “Tents, non-air mattresses, box springs, potted plants, crates, large appliance boxes, carts, gurneys, wagons or furniture, including chairs, tables, couches and bed frames.”

However, McCaffrey’s list differs from what’s written in the agreement, which makes no specific mention of tents. McCaffrey did not respond to follow-up questions about why his language differed from that in the agreement or whether the off-street cleaning policies have changed.

Piers, the attorney, noted that the Homeless Bill of Rights has higher standing than the Bryant Agreement.

“[The Bryant Agreement] has no binding effect on any other person other than the signatories to the agreement,” Piers said. “And, by the way, at the city’s insistence it has no binding effect to the City of Chicago.”

For homeless people, the patchwork is confusing

Amie Smith and Shawn Moore said city workers have thrown away more than a dozen of their tents. They are currently staying on the northbound Randolph Street exit of Lake Shore Drive. (Odette Yousef/WBEZ)

Many homeless residents, like Moore and Smith, said the real problem is how to make sense of the city’s selective enforcement of its tent rules.

Moore and Smith said they regularly had their tents taken away from them when they were in areas that pedestrians do not frequent, such as lower-level streets downtown or highway exit ramps. By contrast, the city tolerated — often contentiously — dozens of tents on sidewalks that pedestrians regularly use at the Wilson and Lawrence Avenue viaducts in Uptown. The Uptown tent cities were eventually forced to disband in September, but only because of construction on the overpasses.

Diane O’Connell, an attorney with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless helping Moore and Smith, said she has concluded that the city aggressively removes tents when media aren’t looking. She noted the city backed down from removing tents in Uptown in 2016 after numerous news reports highlighted the difficulties those homeless residents would face going into the winter.

Neither Rottner nor McCaffrey answered a question about claims that the city enforces tent rules selectively.

Piers said the city’s uneven enforcement underscores a need for clear and binding rules.

Moore said he also needs clarity on another issue, namely why the city is allowed to seize their belongings. The Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless allows him the same security in his personal possessions as anyone with a home might expect.

“You can keep telling me to take it down, take it down, take it down,” Moore said. “But why do you have the right to keep taking it? That’s what I’m not understanding….  I purchased this. It’s not illegal for me to purchase. It’s not illegal for me to have. It’s not illegal for me to put up. Why do you keep taking it?”

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