February 11 – Today CCH celebrated settlement of a legal case that resulted in a new city policy that protects homeless people who weather living outdoors on Lower Wacker Drive and under the Wilson Avenue viaduct.
Four clients joined a lunch celebration hosted by CCH staff and leaders. Also thanked were four attorneys who donated hundreds of hours working on the case for almost two years with the CCH Law Project – Paul Strauss and Ruth Greenwood of the Chicago Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, Inc. (CLCCRUL), and Matthew Piers and Claudia Flores of the law firm of Hughes Socol Piers Resnick & Dym, Ltd.
The new city policy, announced last month, requires the city of Chicago to commit to respect and protect the rights of homeless persons when conducting street-cleaning “sweeps.” Among other requirements, 24-hour notice must be given by the city and procedures followed that protect homeless people from having their vital belongings discarded, including sleeping bags, outerwear, and medicine, explained Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes.
“I’d been on the street three years. It’s a rough life out there…when the police come through, and you have to start from scratch again,” client Bob McMahon told the gathering. A former Marine, McMahon, 55, secured a studio apartment a month ago through a VA program for homeless veterans.
Diane O’Connell, a CCH attorney who led the street outreach to clients, said more than 100 people living on the street were interviewed as CCH investigated the impact of city sweeps. The 17 clients who came forward proved a diverse group – 12 men and five women in their early 20s to mid-60s, five of them white, two Latino and 10 African American.
Since they began working on the case in spring 2013, nine clients are now housed, four are working, and one attends college full-time, she said.
Ms. O’Connell also spoke of the client who died a year ago while in Cook County Jail. Rodger Wrencher, 49, was “one of our first clients. He was truly known as a pillar in the homeless community on Lower Wacker Drive… a humble and generous man. I think he would be very happy and proud if he were here with us.”
Also joining the celebration were clients Elizabeth Ball-Crudup and her husband, Darvin Chambliss, now housed after living under the viaduct; and Ivory Parks, now living in a studio apartment after 23 years of living off and on at Lower Wacker.
“Wow. It’s beautiful, beautiful,” Mr. Parks, 56, said of his new Heartland-managed studio. He noted that he will mark a year of sobriety on Friday.
Attorney Claudia Flores called it an honor to represent people whose constitutional rights were being violated. Ms. Flores said the negotiated city policy will “make life a little bit fairer, a little bit easier, and more lawful.”
Executive Director Ed Shurna noted that CCH settled a federal case (Love vs. City of Chicago) in the late 1990s that protected homeless people from losing their belongings during sweeps, but the policy was disregarded in recent years. The new city policy offers much stronger protections, and CCH will monitor its implementation, he said.
Ms. O’Connell was honored for her work, which she began while still a John Marshall Law School intern, working at CCH through a project funded by the Alvin H. Baum Family Fund. Senior Counsel Rene Heybach, who worked on the case with her, commended Ms. O’Connell’s “drive and heart and intelligence.”
At the close of the lunch, Ms. O’Connell performed a poem she wrote in honor of the clients:
I want to see all of our people indoors
inside the sanctuary of four walls and a floor
where they can come and go as they choose
and not wake up to police yelling at them to move
where they can have a safe place to keep all the things that they use
and a quiet space to fill with the future
I want to see all of our people get clean
inside and out
fresh after the shower
skin soft with steam
(singing “ain’t nobody dope as me”)
feeling refreshed and redeemed
absolved of regrets and grief
prepared and reprieved
I want to see all of our people get free
emancipated from mental slavery
and tearing down the walls of County
and Audi Home
and the MCC
given the strength to speak
and the right to be treated equally
understanding who’s holding the strings
and bringing the truth
to their doorstep
I want to see
all of our people
both living and deceased
who’ve held out a cup to get “something to eat”
or slept on Lower Wacker Drive at 10 degrees below freezing
may they find find rest and relief
from their stress and defeats
may they find faith and belief
that the justice we need
is within the reach
of those people
who care enough to fight
– Anne Bowhay, with photos by Shruti Sharma