Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Cappleman free to show he’s serious about helping homeless

By Mark Brown, Columnist

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) and Salvation Army officials put on a happy face Wednesday to signal an end to their dispute over the charity’s program to feed the poor in Uptown.

The feeding program will continue as it has, said Capt. Nancy Powers, director of the Salvation Army’s Harbor Light Center, which includes the agency’s homeless outreach efforts.

A smiling Powers emerged from a meeting in Cappleman’s office just as an anti-Cappleman protest rally gathered steam on the sidewalk outside.

“I think it’s really going to be an exciting day in Uptown as all of us work together,” Powers said.

In carefully prepared statements, neither side claimed victory, nor did they engage in finger-pointing about the disagreement that led up to it.

Cappleman thanked Powers for the meeting and said: “We both agree that there is more work we all can do to combat this problem” of chronic homelessness.

How nice.

As you know from reading this column, the dispute started when Cappleman tried to tell the charity last week that he didn’t want its food truck operating in his ward any longer.

But it would be impolite to dwell on that at this point, as Cappleman is so intent on making believe it never happened, and with the good-hearted folks from the Salvation Army being only too happy to put the controversy behind them, too, so they can get back to their mission of doing good.

All’s well that ends well on that front, as far as I’m concerned, which still leaves us several other fronts, Cappleman having been a very busy boy.

This was was made clear by the 300 protesters who spanned the 4500 block of North Broadway for more than an hour in the cold.

They handed out cups of hot soup to mock the alderman while chanting “Uptown for Everyone” and carrying signs with messages such as “Have a Heart — We’re not Pigeons.”

But there was also good news to report on another of those Cappleman fronts, with an indication that Mayor Rahm Emanuel might be taking a harder look at the alderman’s ordinance to close the city’s last two cubicle hotels — or cage hotels as the alderman prefers to call them because of the wire mesh ceilings on the tiny rooms.

“We are reviewing the ordinance but do not support closing down these cubicle hotels unless and until we have a plan for where these individuals will go,” a city spokesman said in what — parsing aside — was the clearest statement on the matter to date from the Emanuel administration.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the clarification came a day after the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law warned the city that eliminating the cubicle hotels would violate fair housing laws and possibly jeopardize the city’s federal funding.

In a letter to the mayor, Katherine Walz, the center’s director for housing justice, said the ordinance would “create an impediment to fair housing choice.”

Specifically, the city would be “eliminating needed affordable housing of low-income minorities in predominately white communities” without replacing it in those white communities, she wrote.

That refers to the effort to close down the Wilson Men’s Hotel, 1124 W. Wilson in Uptown, and the Ewing Annex Hotel, 426 S. Clark, in the South Loop.

Walz’s letter reads very much like the legal brief that might accompany a lawsuit, the implied threat of which is probably not lost on city officials

Cappleman and Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) have led the charge to close the hotels on the grounds that the living conditions, in which the men occupy 5-by-7-foot stalls with wire over the top, are inhumane.

It’s plain to most everyone else at this point that the aldermen are really just trying to clear these places — and the folks who reside there — out of the neighborhood, for whatever reason, most likely related to real estate.

The Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has been organizing on behalf of the residents of the cubicle hotels, who are not unaware of their dismal abodes but choose to live there because of limited options. They also happen to like the location.

And as they appreciate much better than the aldermen, the alternative for many of them will be living in homeless shelters or on the streets.

With the writing now on the wall, this might be a good time for Cappleman and Reilly to withdraw their ordinance — and start talking instead about what they plan to do to create better affordable housing.