Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: City agrees to be more respectful of homeless belongings

By Mark Brown, columnist

Maybe the most common complaint of any homeless person living on the streets of Chicago is about losing their possessions in a city sweep.

The sweeps — partly a cleaning effort, partly an old-fashioned roust — have long been used by city officials to control homeless encampments.

In the process, though, homeless people often end up losing blankets, clothing, medicine and important documents critical to both their short-term survival and long-term chances of regaining a footing in society.

Every time they lose their stuff, they have to start all over again to rebuild their meager lives, even to obtain proof of their identity.


But for Ivory Parks, 56, it was the loss of something that couldn’t be replaced that led him to join a group of complainants organized by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless to seek redress from the city.

One morning while Parks was away from his spot on Lower Wacker Drive to keep an appointment, city cleaning crews threw out his family photos — mostly pictures of him with his mom and dad when he was a child.

“It kind of ticked me off,”  said the soft-spoken Parks, a recovering heroin addict who spent 13 years living on Chicago’s streets in between trips to prison and jail. “I had those photos for as long as I can remember.”

The Florida-born Parks, now clean and sober for one year and living in a West Side studio apartment for five months, says he must rely these days on the pictures in his head to keep the memories alive.

On Wednesday, the Coalition for the Homeless honored Parks and 16 other homeless individuals for volunteering to be part of a threatened — but never filed — lawsuit that recently resulted in a settlement that adds improved protections for the personal property of some homeless individuals during what the city calls “off-street cleanings.”

For now, the policy applies only to the Lower Wacker Drive area and to the Wilson Avenue viaduct beneath Lake Shore Drive. But the agreement allows the homeless coalition to work with the city to identify other areas that should receive the same treatment.

The agreement with the Emanuel Administration requires city workers to give more notice before cleaning operations and sets detailed rules for discarding of items.

All homeless people are allowed to keep only “portable personal possessions” defined as a “sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases.”

In the winter months, they can have five more blankets and another sleeping bag.

One of the big changes is that the city will now tag unattended belongings and come back for them a week later instead of tossing them in the trash immediately.

And city crews are now under specific orders not to discard personal documents such as identification, birth certificates, legal papers and personal photographs “if readily visible.”

“We believe these updated policies and procedures respect the rights of the homeless while protecting the public’s right to a clean and safe public way,” said a city spokesman.

I’m not sure how well that provision will work considering that homeless people usually try to keep such items hidden, but lawyers for the group told me early indications are that city workers are making an honest effort to be more respectful of all the belongings they find.

It’s also significant the new policy clarifies that the Department of Family and Support Services is in charge of any cleaning operations involving homeless people, not the Police Department or Streets and Sanitation workers. Switching from a law enforcement to a social service approach should go a long ways toward improving the situation.

A previous federal lawsuit on behalf of Lower Wacker’s homeless resulted in a settlement agreement with Mayor Richard M. Daley’s administration, but advocates say the city long ago stopped abiding by it.

Bob McMahon, a 55-year-old Marine Corps veteran who camped out three years in a tent along the Chicago River near the River City development, choked up as he thanked the lawyers who took the case.

McMahon said he lost all his belongings four times while homeless, and each time was forced to start all over.

“You have what you’re wearing. That’s all,” McMahon told me.

Last month, McMahon got an apartment in North Riverside with a federal housing voucher obtained through the Veterans Administration.

The moral here, as one of the lawyers put it, is that your things are your things, and the government can’t just come and take them, even if you’re homeless.

Ivory Parks was one of 17 homeless people whose threatened lawsuit against the city resulted in a revised policy for handling personal possessions during cleaning operations. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times