Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Calling delayed tent removal op ‘homeless outreach’ a bit of a reach

By Mark Brown, columnist

City officials postponed a “homeless outreach” effort planned for Monday night in which Chicago Police and Park District security personnel were scheduled to root out individuals sleeping in tents along the north lakefront.

It may be coincidental, but the change of plans didn’t come until late Monday afternoon after I’d made a few calls to learn more about the “outreach,” which sounded a lot like a sweep or crackdown to me.

John Pfeiffer, first deputy commissioner in the Department of Family and Support Services, said officials decided they should give homeless individuals some warning before conducting an enforcement action.

The homeless people don’t appear to be the targets so much as their tents, which I’m told have been proliferating in recent weeks in the area between Montrose and Lawrence east of Marine Drive.

John Rydr is homeless and has a tent that he puts up every night and takes down every morning, the Chicago Park District and Chicago Police may have him and others removed from Montrose Beach soon. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times
John Rydr is homeless and has a tent that he puts up every night and takes down every morning, the Chicago Park District and Chicago Police may have him and others removed from Montrose Beach soon. | Alex Wroblewski / Sun-Times

Pfeiffer confirmed the department had received citizen complaints about tents in the park, although I believe many of those complaints have been channeled through Ald. James Cappleman (46th), who pushed for police intervention.

Police officers in the 19th District had been instructed to inform anyone with a tent they are not permitted in the parks without a permit.

Police were told the operation would continue over the next several nights until all tents have been removed. That’s now on hold.

It’s unclear how many homeless people would also be removed — or where they would go. The plan was for the Salvation Army to offer them shelter, of which there are very few options, and none that the homeless probably haven’t previously rejected.

I think what happened is that a few individuals were becoming too bold, leaving their tents up during the day instead of taking them down at sunrise and hiding them out of sight.

The police and the homeless people usually work this stuff out informally using common sense, with the police looking the other way as long as nobody is causing trouble, and then somebody messes it up, and the informal arrangements go out the window.

Even a bleeding heart like me knows we probably can’t be turning our treasured lakefront park system into a KOA campground for the huddled masses.

But when somebody is so far down on their luck that they’re sleeping in the park, I hate to see anybody giving them another kick.

A homeless person wants to use a tent for the same reason as anybody else sleeping outdoors — for protection from the elements and the bugs and maybe even a modicum of security.

The message to the homeless seems to be that if you’re going to sleep in the park, don’t make yourself comfortable.

“What are they hurting?” is how Ronald Scotti puts it.

Scotti, 45, says he doesn’t have a tent but sleeps in a bedroll on the sidewalk on Wilson Avenue beneath the Lake Shore Drive viaduct.

I met him there Monday as he searched for his missing can opener among his companions’ belongings and fussed about having to pick up everyone else’s litter.

“I try to take a little pride in where I live,” Scotti said, proudly pointing me to his clean stretch of sidewalk while clutching a Lee Child paperback from the Jack Reacher series.

I could see some rolled-up tents in the vicinity but found none standing.

Scotti said several tents have popped up recently, including two used by families. He said he ran off one young couple with a pair of infants because they were selling crack.

“They need more people like me down here,” said Scotti, whose criminal record would probably make it difficult for him to find housing if he wanted it, which he says he does not.

“I’ve not only done time, I’ve done enough time,” he told me.

As for the prospect of police confiscating the tents, Scotti said, “I’ve seen people killed down here trying to take somebody’s tent,” inadvertently putting his finger on one of the reasons not everyone is enthusiastic about the mission.

Police didn’t respond to my inquiry.

There were indications Monday that Streets and Sanitation workers were getting a jump on the “outreach” effort as crews could be seen tossing the belongings of homeless individuals stashed along the Lake Shore Drive guardrail at Lawrence.

I’ve never had anybody tell me that throwing away their stuff is an effective way to reach homeless people.