Chicago Sun-Times, Mark Brown: Uptown’s homeless fold their tents, city covers its eyes

Police line Wilson Avenue where homeless people briefly set up their tents Monday after the city demanded they leave two Lake Shore Drive viaducts. |Mark Brown/Sun-Times

By Mark Brown, Columnist

As Chicago police moved in Monday with crews of city workers to forcibly remove, if necessary, the homeless people from their Uptown tents, activists struck up a chant of “The whole world is watching.”

If only that were true.

Mostly the world looks away from the homeless, except when it can’t avoid their presence, as in the case of the Tent City camps that are no more.

In the end, no force was necessary to complete the camps’ eviction. No blows were struck. No arrests made.

Just the threat of force was enough to convince the remaining 20-25 homeless people to literally fold their tents.

Still, it was touch and go for a while until Pastor Carey Gidron, a friend of the homeless, convinced them they would be better off to voluntarily give up, preserve their belongings and avoid a threatened trip to jail.

So one-by-one they complied until all the tents were down.

Yet afterward, the question had to be asked: What exactly was accomplished this day, beyond clearing the path for a Lake Shore Drive construction project?

“Nothing. Not a thing,” said Peter Rasmussen, a lean 58-year-old homeless man as we sat in the sun in a small park alongside Wilson Avenue where the recent residents of two Lake Shore Drive viaducts had tried to restage their camps on the city right-of-way.

Police declared the new location too dangerous, and beyond that, said the homeless people didn’t have a permit.

“But where can we go?” said the homeless and their supporters. And for that there was no good answer.

When I left them late in the afternoon, one homeless man was passed out drunk on a park bench, another in the grass by the sidewalk. Nearby, a couple had moved deeper into the park to sort their belongings, their plan uncertain.

And, oh yes, some people were putting up the tents again, this time on the city right-of-way on the west side of Marine Drive south of Wilson.

Rasmussen and others had discussed such a possibility earlier.

I told him the city would chase them off from there, too.

“Are they just going to move us around like cattle?” he asked, to which the honest answer was “yes,” although I don’t think I said anything.

We agreed his best approach would probably be to slip off into the park at night by himself or in a small group, making sure to pack up by morning, which was what the homeless used to do before the tent encampments.

The camps were a safer alternative for the homeless, but neighbors felt more threatened by seeing them congregated in one place.

It is not illegal to be homeless in America, but the proof of that was not evident in Uptown on Monday.

It’s probably more correct to say that it is legal to be homeless as long as you don’t stop long enough in any one place that somebody notices you.

Some will hail Monday’s removal of the homeless as progress. I will chalk it up as another chapter in moving the homeless out of the way without really solving the problem.

That’s not to say it was a total loss.

In the lead-up to Monday’s eviction, some individuals received help getting into housing who probably wouldn’t have without all the fuss.

One of them, Mark Saulys, had received keys to an apartment three days earlier and was already feeling the benefits.

“You know what I feel like? I feel like my mother is still alive,” he told me.

Then on Monday, four more took the city’s offer to come off the street and accept beds in a nearby homeless shelter, including Carol Adalpe, the 68-year-old woman with the two dogs I have written about previously.

She refused to budge until promised she could bring the dogs with her.

As I left, Adalpe was riding off into the sunset on her motorized scooter, her friends trailing along with the dogs.

That does not make this a happy ending.