Former Lower Wacker homeless couple reaches settlement with the city of Chicago

By Diane O’Connell

CCH Community Lawyer

Shawn Moore and Amie Smith (Odette Yousef | WBEZ)

This week marks the end of our lawsuit, Smith v. City of Chicago. We secured a favorable settlement on behalf of two clients who once lived on Lower Wacker Drive, thanks in huge part to the hard work of Hughes, Socol, Piers, Resnick & Dym, Ltd., which co-counseled the case with the Law Project at CCH.

Since 2015, this is the third settlement CCH has reached with the city of Chicago over its mistreatment of homeless people who live on the street, violating the Illinois Homeless Bill of Rights. All three cases were co-counseled by CCH and the Hughes Socol law firm.

In the summer of 2016, former CCH client Renard Parish brought a couple into our office who had all their property thrown away by city workers on Lower Wacker. Renard had been through the same thing: We represented him in our first settlement with the city (Bryant v. City of Chicago).

As alleged in the case, Shawn Moore and Amie Smith would go on to experience a pattern of harassment over the next year and a half by two police officers also implicated in the Bryant case, Robert Bullington and Jeanette O’Brien. These officers, and others, repeatedly threw away Shawn and Amie’s tent and other property, belittled them because of their homelessness, and forced them to move over and over. They threatened to arrest Shawn and Amie for arbitrary reasons, including having their property with them off the side of a street ramp (“Storage of Goods on the Public Way”), for holding a sign asking for donations (“Aggressive Panhandling”), and for not having state-issued ID cards.

On one video, Officer Bullington threatened “to lock him [Shawn] up for trespassing or whatever,” seeming to express that he would find a charge on which to arrest Shawn just because he was outside in a place the city didn’t want him to be.

Shawn and Amie collected hours of video footage of these interactions and police body-cameras provided more. But the overarching feeling I had after watching these videos was just bewilderment. Why? Why would the city spend so much time going after two homeless people? As a couple that keeps mostly to themselves, Shawn and Amie were just trying to find a little corner where they would be left alone.

This case, and the others before it, have compelled the city to make restitution for harsh and discriminatory tactics against people experiencing homelessness. It is another glaring example of how Chicago needs to shift its priorities to solving homelessness, rather than just relocating it to some other corner of town. More than 80,000 Chicagoans are homeless,  and the city’s meager funding to combat the problem – ranking near the bottom of cities with the largest populations – is a major reason why.

The time and money the city has spent treating homeless people as suspects – only to be held legally and financially accountable for its misconduct – could be funneled into a productive solution that has already garnered significant community and political support: It’s known as Bring Chicago Home, a campaign of dozens of community organizations citywide that proposes a plan to eliminate the chronic shortage of funds available to house people experiencing homelessness. Fortunately, Mayor Lori Lightfoot has backed a similar proposal to dramatically increase this funding, and CCH, as the managing member of the Bring Chicago Home campaign, is working to get a measure on the books.

Like many cases, Shawn and Amie’s continued in court after the mistreatment they experienced had stopped. This past winter, they were fortunate enough to finally receive a housing subsidy and found a permanent unit in a nice neighborhood near the lake.

When I see them now, they both look healthy and well-rested. Shawn and Amie finally found a place, not just where the city would leave them alone, but where they could cook, spend quality time, plan for the future. A dream for them, but it’s something so many people take for granted – something so many people don’t get to have.

Renard was not so fortunate. The winter after introducing us to Shawn and Amie, Renard died while still homeless. He was only 51 years old.

As one of my early clients at CCH, Renard educated me about the injustice and discrimination that people who experience homelessness face. I wish I could tell him now that the city’s aggressive panhandling ordinance was repealed last year.  I wish I could see him living in his own safe home indoors.

Shawn and Amie have begun a new chapter of their lives. They’re happy to put these events behind them.

“Instead of helping us find housing, all the city did was hinder us by taking our tents away and making us more unstable so we couldn’t go look for work,” Amie told me.

The settlement represents a bit of justice for Shawn and Amie. If only there were enough of that to go around.

Media coverage:

WBEZ, Odette Yousef: Where can homeless people pitch tents in Chicago?

Chicago Tribune, Will Lee: In test of state law, Chicago homeless couple sues city, alleging property rights violated