Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Homeless survive city’s viaduct ‘cleaning’

By Mark Brown, columnist

Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes monitors the city's actions. The city made homeless people move their tents and belongings for a few hours Friday while city crews tossed any junk left behind before sweeping and power-washing the sidewalks.| Mark Brown / Sun-Times
Law Project Director Patricia Nix-Hodes monitors the city’s actions as it cleaned homeless encampments near Lake Shore Drive. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

The city conducted what it calls a “cleaning” Friday morning at the homeless encampments beneath the Wilson and Lawrence viaducts at Lake Shore Drive.

This required the homeless people to move their tents and belongings for a few hours while city crews tossed any junk left behind before sweeping and power-washing the sidewalks.

All things considered, it went relatively smoothly, with only a few last-minute dust-ups.

It had been a few months since the last cleaning, and nobody could really argue there weren’t legitimate public health reasons for another.

Cleanings, though, are only partly a matter of cleanliness and sanitation.

They are also a form of harassment of the homeless, a way of letting them know they aren’t supposed to make themselves too comfortable.

“They want to show who’s boss,” Mark Saulys says. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times
“They want to show who’s boss,” Mark Saulys says. | Mark Brown / Sun-Times

“They want to show who’s boss,” said viaduct dweller Mark Saulys, 55, who grew up in Beverly, the son of Lithuanian refugees.

If public health was the overriding issue, the city would put a portable toilet in the area, as some homeless people suggested to me Friday. But it won’t do that because that would spoil the illusion the homeless situation is temporary.

Some Uptown residents believe the homeless have made themselves way too comfortable in the past year, by first acquiring tents and later discarded furniture.

These neighbors keep demanding the city “do something.” For now, a cleaning is about all the city can do while trying to solve the larger problem.

City officials know homeless people regard the cleanings as a hassle, which is why they had slowed the pace this summer while trying to win cooperation from the viaduct residents for the city’s pilot program that promises to get 75 of them housed.

Now, apparently in response to the push to do something more, city officials say they plan to conduct weekly cleanings beneath the viaducts.

“It seems pretty clear that for them to do it every week there’s another purpose involved,” said Saulys, comparing the situation to a landlord who wants to evict a tenant but legally can’t, so instead just makes his life miserable.

There is no legitimate way to argue that weekly cleanings are for the benefit of the homeless people, all of whom are forced to put their lives on hold for a day to protect their possessions. For some, this requires taking a day off work. Yes, some of them work.

I truly believe new city Family and Support Services Commissioner Lisa Morrison-Butler has been trying to do right by homeless people. But the plan for weekly cleanings runs counter to that approach.

A week ago, city workers tagged all the viaduct tents for removal in advance of Friday’s cleaning, throwing a scare into the homeless community. Officials later clarified that no tents would be seized on this occasion.

Homeless advocates, though, say the city is reserving the right to dispose of the tents in the future.

Taking away the tents just before the cold weather also would be a major mistake.

The tents indeed can be a jarring sight, especially for people who don’t like to think about homeless people living amongst them. I’ve come to believe allowing the tents is only humane.

The process of housing the homeless continues to move slowly, too, although I can report that Donald King, one of the individuals on the waiting list who I told you about a few weeks ago, proudly told me Friday he was moving to his new apartment that morning.

Many of the homeless people I met Friday never made it on the waiting list for the pilot project, so they’ll still be out there on the streets even if the city finds housing for the original 75.

By afternoon, the sidewalks were slightly cleaner, one less person was homeless, and most of the tents were back in place.