Chicago Tribune: Advocates criticize plan to fence off Lower Wacker homeless encampment

By Tony Briscoe

The city plans to fence off a homeless encampment along Lower Wacker Drive, a move it says is intended to reduce crime, but one that homeless advocates say raises legal questions.

The Chicago Department of Transportation posted notices around a small barricaded area near Wabash Avenue and East Lower Wacker Drive, known as “the Triangle,” informing members of the homeless contingent who live there to gather their belonging and leave by Monday. Though the bulletins says the site will be “closed for construction” until June 22, the city will be erecting a fence around the area, which will remain in place indefinitely, according to CDOT.

The Transportation Department said it was instructed by the Chicago Police Department to fence off the area for public safety reasons. Chicago police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi confirmed the move was undertaken by multiple agencies in response to a wide range of criminal activities.

“For the last several months, CPD has been working with city partners to address criminal incidents taking place on Lower Wacker including, narcotics dealing, robberies, street racing and prostitution,” Guglielmi said in a statement.

Guglielmi didn’t specifically mention gun violence, but arguably the most high-profile crime this year — the fatal shooting of Chicago police Cmdr. Paul Bauer — may have had ties to Lower Wacker. On Feb. 13, officers approached a man on Lower Wacker about a recent shooting and drug sales, but he ran off.

Bauer overheard a radio dispatch about the chase and spotted a suspect matching the description near the Thompson Center. Bauer was fatally shot while trying to pursue the man.

Shomari Legghette, a 44-year-old four-time felon, was charged with first-degree murder, armed violence, and weapons and drug offenses. He has pleaded not guilty.

This year, Chicago police have been called to Lower Wacker for at least three dozen crimes, including assault involving a handgun April 10 and an armed robbery with a firearm May 26, according to public records.

At a news conference held near the encampment Thursday, members of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, a nonprofit that has represented homeless people living on Lower Wacker, objected to the decision to vacate the area and called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and other agencies to provide housing to those living on the street rather than simply displacing them.

Diane O’Connell, staff attorney for the coalition, said the city hasn’t mentioned criminal activity as the impetus to block access to the Triangle, but she said it’s not fair to generalize the entire encampment as criminals.

“There’s absolutely a legal argument that if the city’s whole purpose is to discriminate against people based on their homelessness that is a violation of the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act,” O’Connell said.

“Certainly, there is criminal activity all over the city,” O’Connell added. “But if you generalize that activity and say it is the fault of one group, and then you take an adverse action that hurts that group, that’s the definition of discrimination — that’s a stereotype.”

After the notice was posted, many people who live in the Triangle had already moved. Charles Hunter, 34, who moved a few of his bags to a new location, was among those still needing to do more packing .

Hunter, who lived in the Pullman neighborhood, said he started sleeping on Lower Wacker on and off about three years ago. He said he was a loner at first but found a sense of community in the Triangle, the barricaded area wedged between two forking lanes of traffic.

The dim lighting, gang graffiti etched on the walls and roaring sound of traffic may seem like an unappealing place to live to most, but many of those who sleep on the makeshift cardboard beds only want a place to stay, Hunter said.

That’s more difficult for those who may be destitute or have a checkered past, like Hunter, who was charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon and possession of heroin in February, and has previously been arrested for panhandling and trespassing.

“We do our part to try to make it stay clean, beautify it, to make sure that no negative stuff is happening downtown,” Hunter said as he swept up trash amid the dozen or so makeshift beds. “You got a lot of people and a lot of love.”

The decision to wall off the area follows a street sweep last month in which workers seized homeless people’s property and forced them to move, O’Connell said. The coalition said the tactics violated the city’s own street cleaning policy, which it adopted in 2015 in a settlement agreement reached with Lower Wacker residents who were represented by coalition attorneys.

It was unclear whether the coalition would file a legal challenge to the street sweep or the eviction of homeless people living in the Triangle. O’Connell said it was evident that fencing off areas was part of an ongoing effort that she has seen along Lower Wacker, including areas near State Street and Lower Wacker and in the 300 block of Wacker Drive.

“If you just drive along Lower Wacker, you’ll see that these fences are all over the place,” O’Connell said. “Every year I’ve worked at the coalition, more of these have come up.”