By Tessa Weinberg
The piercing whine of drills hitting concrete echoed across Lower Wacker Drive as a person in a homeless encampment tried to sleep nearby.
Advocates with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless stood huddled as Chicago Department of Transportation workers drilled holes to erect tall black poles that would fence off an area along the site of a homeless encampment known as “the Triangle,” near Wabash Avenue and East Lower Wacker.
“Woah, they’re serious,” Chris Carter, who has been homeless for four years, said when he spotted the six poles Monday afternoon.
Carter, 50, is one of the dozens of homeless Chicagoans who have packed up their belongings and are leaving the area that once was home to about 50 people at a time.
By Monday afternoon, crates, blankets, a few bicycles and trash were left strewn across the damp ground. One tent remained, but bright orange CDOT signs warning that people and belongings needed to be gone by 8 a.m. Monday for construction already had driven most out.
However, confusion persisted when the scheduled evictions didn’t take place. A new sign was posted announcing the Triangle would be power-washed from 7 a.m. to 10 a.m. Friday.
Ali Simmons, a street outreach worker with the Coalition for the Homeless who visits the encampment a few times a week, said the new sign and delayed evictions “make no sense.”
“There’s still people here. They didn’t move. They didn’t make an attempt to move. So I think that tends to support the fact that there was confusion on what was supposed to happen,” Simmons said. “You’ve got two different notices, saying two different things. Why post a power-washing notice for the 15th to give residents notice of this, if no one would be here?”
Multiple city departments, including the Police Department, Department of Family and Support Services, Department of Transportation, and Department of Streets and Sanitation are working in conjunction to fence off the encampment in an effort to target crime. Construction of the fence is expected to take place through June 22.
Diane O’Connell, a staff attorney with the Coalition for the Homeless, questioned the city’s intentions.
“I think that there’s crime that happens all over the city of Chicago, and to take an adverse action against a group of people based on a stereotype that that group of people is dangerous, is discrimination,” O’Connell said.
Two officials with CDOT declined to comment at the encampment or clarify when people needed to vacate.
“I can’t speak to the signs,” said Alisa Rodriguez, the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services’ deputy commissioner of homeless programs. “But what I can tell you is that we haven’t asked anyone to move. Of course the intent is by the end of the week, CDOT will do the work that they need to do, and folks will need to vacate, but no one needs to move now, or not until Friday.”
However, the orange CDOT bulletins posted last week said all people and items needed to be vacated Monday and any belongings left would be “discarded by the City.”
Representatives of the city’s Transportation, Family and Support Services and Streets and Sanitation and Police departments said they could not provide clarification on when people have to leave.
Some people said they hadn’t been informed by the city when they needed to leave.
“I’m just trying to figure things out,” Carter said. “Who is responsible for doing all these things right here? Caging this up because of the homeless?”
The confusion surrounding the deadline creates a risk for people who are homeless who call the Triangle home, O’Connell said.
“If they don’t know when the city is going to finally, actually evict them and take possession of things that are here, it creates uncertainty and it creates a risk that if a person does need to go somewhere and do something, maybe when they’re not here their possessions get thrown away,” she said.
Among the belongings could be medication, personal documents, clothes and more, O’Connell said.
Carter and Terry Mardis, who said he had lived in the Triangle for the past 13 years, were some of the people who had already moved their belongings farther down Lower Wacker.
Carter said he has lived in the Triangle for the past three winters, and with the fence going in, he had no choice but to move.
Mardis, who stood in the Triangle on Monday with a sleeping bag under one arm, said he felt the construction showed the city considered being homeless a crime.
“But it’s not a crime,” said Mardis, 48. “We don’t have nowhere to go. We’re down here to live our life.”
Those at the encampment said their remaining options were slim.
“We’re safer down here,” Carter said. “We go down south there’s shooting down there. We go out west, there’s shooting over there. Go out north, we don’t belong around there. The city is segregated, so the homeless can’t go too far.”
The covered roads of Lower Wacker Drive provide warmth and protection, Mardis said.
Simmons said the Triangle was a place where people have found sanctuary, security and comfort. Building a fence won’t fix the issue in the long term, he said, while affordable housing would.
“Eventually we’re still going to be down here,” Carter said. “We’re just going to move down the street, and go down somewhere else. It’s going to be the same old, same old.”
Rodriguez rebutted claims that the city is criminalizing homelessness and only provides services when evictions are near.
“We’re under Lower Wacker regularly. This is nothing new. Nothing different,” Rodriguez said. “The only difference is that the fence is going up.”
But to Mardis, the fence makes all the difference.
It’s “really hurting me, because we’ve got to go. This is our house down here,” Mardis said with tears in his eyes. “We’ve got to stick up for our rights. And everybody’s got to stand up.”