By Lara Weber and John J. Kim
The weather was still warm last week when we visited with about a dozen people camped on a parkway west of the Wilson Avenue viaduct under Lake Shore Drive. A few sat chatting in a circle of lawn chairs. Another group grilled spiced chicken. Homeless, they told us they were confused about where they are allowed to sleep at night and whether they are allowed to pitch tents. Many said they were eager to obtain permanent housing, but they’d been on a long city list for so many years they weren’t hopeful. In the meantime, they say local shelters are often unclean, unsafe or full — so they prefer the community they’ve made around Wilson.
More than 6,700 people in Chicago are identified as homeless, according to a city count conducted earlier this year. It’s a slight increase over the previous year, but that uptick is consistent with fluctuations over the past decade. What’s new, according to the Department of Family and Support Services, is the steady increase of people living “unsheltered.” About 2,000 people are living in parks, alleys, under viaducts or other places that often leave them — and their belongings — especially vulnerable.
Chicago settled a class-action lawsuit in January that had been filed on behalf of a group of homeless residents who alleged that Chicago police and other city workers destroyed their personal property, particularly along Lower Wacker Drive and in the vicinity of the Wilson Avenue viaduct under Lake Shore Drive. As part of the settlement, the city and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, working for the claimants, developed a list of “personal portable possessions” that homeless people in those two areas would be allowed to keep with them.
In recent months, tensions have flared in Uptown, near the Wilson Avenue viaduct, over the terms of the settlement and conflicting interpretations of where the homeless community can sleep and what belongings they can have.
What’s allowed as “portable personal possessions”:
1 sleeping bag or bedroll
5 blankets (from October through April, five additional blankets and one extra sleeping bag or bedroll are allowed)
2 pairs of shoes or boots
3 bags or suitcases (and the contents contained within)
Non-air mattresses, box springs, potted plants, crates, large appliance boxes, carts, gurneys, wagons or furniture.
Link to video interview with Raul Gonzalez, 43, who describes his state of homelessness at a park adjacent to the Wilson Avenue underpass at Lake Shore Drive. (John J. Kim, Chicago Tribune).