By Mark Brown, columnist
A week after I wrote about the homeless people living under Lake Shore Drive at Wilson Avenue, police and city sanitation crews kicked them out.
Nobody seems to be able to explain how that came to happen. Ald. James Cappleman (46th) denies any involvement.
First came the sanitation workers, who disposed of everything the homeless people could not carry with them, including clothing, blankets and makeshift bedding that had cluttered the sidewalk.
Later came police who handed out tickets to the homeless people who remained behind and warned them they would be arrested if they returned.
The dozen or so individuals living under the viaduct at the time of my earlier visits were scattered to the wind as a result.
Forced to relocate from what they considered a relatively safe encampment, most chose to retreat into the lakefront parks or into the adjacent Uptown neighborhood — hiding away to sleep in the nooks and crannies of the urban landscape.
While one individual chose to enter a homeless shelter as a result of the sidewalk eviction, another ended up dead of a heart attack during what his friends say was the stressful lead-up to it.
In the end, I’m not sure what was accomplished other than moving the homeless out of sight and out of mind for a few days. Nobody should be fooled into thinking the people under the viaduct are any less homeless than when they were in plain view.
On Wednesday, I found Gregory Guest, 47, sitting on the embankment on the east side of the viaduct, bemoaning the death of his friend, Jack King.
King, 58, and Guest had slept side by side under the viaduct for several months, watching each other’s backs.
“I can’t believe he’s gone. He was like a little older brother. We used to go out there to the corner to panhandle,” said Guest, a powerfully built guy from Alabama.
“We met behind St. Augustine’s,” Guest said, referring to Uptown’s ministry for American Indians that also cares for the neighborhood’s homeless population. “He kept me out of trouble. But he drank too much.”
About a week and a half ago, King headed off on his own.
“He said there was too much stress, too much aggravation,” Guest said. Part of that aggravation came from police who had been pressing the homeless to move, he said.
On March 13, King was found dead of natural causes outside a city health clinic on Wilson Avenue.
This was two days before a Streets and Sanitation truck showed up and gave the Wilson viaduct inhabitants an hour to clear out their stuff. Those who were there grabbed what they could and left. The rest was tossed.
Guest said he hadn’t taken the threat seriously and wandered off to the Jewel to use the bathroom. When he got back, his stuff was gone.
Sometime later, police arrived and ticketed Guest and a few others who had remained under the viaduct. “Loitering on the public way or something,” said Guest, who admitted he tore it in half and threw it away.
To be absolutely clear, I believe Jack King died because of a combination of heavy drinking and living on the streets, not because of getting hassled by the police.
The people under the viaduct would be the first to tell you most police are their friends and look out for them. They understand the concept of carrying out orders.
Where those orders came from is the mystery. The Police Department did not respond to my inquiries.
Other city spokesmen said social workers from the Department of Family and Support Services had visited the site earlier that week and were planning a joint visit with Streets and Sanitation, but sanitation workers moved ahead without waiting for the social workers because they had a free truck in the area that day. In response to my email inquiry, Cappleman wrote that he “never asked for them to be moved” and was unaware they had been until days later.
“I have always asked DFSS to provide services to everyone that is sleeping outside and to help them get into shelter,” he wrote. He said he knew nothing about the tickets and does not support arresting the homeless.
I told Cappleman I was baffled as to how the city could clear out a major homeless encampment in his ward without conferring with him.
By Thursday night, Guest and Robert Zachowski, 57, had returned to stake out a spot under the viaduct, laying a blanket over a sheet of plastic in preparation for sleep.
They said they weren’t worried about the police, not having done anything wrong except to be homeless.
I’m sure they’ll sleep better tonight knowing the city has their back.