By Luke O’Neil
The weeks leading up to a concert being held tonight at Chicago’s Montrose Beach have not gone as smoothly as organizers might have hoped, and not just because it’s suddenly dawned on them they’re going to have to sit through a Mumford & Sons show. The performance by the British troubadours, which was originally scheduled for Wednesday, but postponed due to inclement weather, is expected to draw 35,000 people to the waterfront location, a venue that has been a sticking point in the past, most recently when the Wavefront Music Festival was canceled last year after complaints about traffic and noise pollution. In order to allay neighbors’ concerns, the promoters and the city have assured residents that they have nothing to worry about, planning for extra buses and trains to the show, and parking for 5,000 bicycles. “The audience is not the type of audience you have to worry about,” David Carlucci of JAM Productions told The Chicago Tribune.
The area’s homeless population, on the other hand, has been given no such a blessing. On Tuesday morning, as DNAinfo first reported, they were abruptly removed from a pair of viaducts that commonly serve as shelter from the type of heavy rains that hit the area earlier this week in order to clear paths that will serve as access points for the concert. The aptly named “street-cleanings,” as they’re called, are something the city’s homeless population is familiar with, but, as local advocates say, this time it was carried out capriciously, and without much in the way of warning, assistance, or instructions for where exactly they were meant to relocate to.
Norman Kaeseberg, who lives nearby, and works with the community outreach group One Northside, called the process “pretty sickening.”
“Up until a few days ago, 13 tents were there,” he notes. “They were there all winter long and they just got thrown out.” One of the chief indignities of such cleanings comes not in the relocating of the people themselves, but the manner in which their possessions are essentially confiscated, or thrown out, by city workers, meaning they can lose necessary coats, blankets, tents, or identification.
Kaeseberg spoke to a woman who was wandering around, confused as to what had happened. “She was looking for her partner, they had shoved him into a Catholic charities van, and they threw his tent and all his stuff into a garbage truck.”
He points to what he calls a campaign waged against the homeless by the area alderman James Cappleman as the motivation for the clean up, a politician who the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless has said “systematically reduces low-income housing in favor of a gentrification strategy” and “regularly vilifies” the homeless.
“So you’ve got this Mumford & Sons concert, and they went in and they used that as an excuse to go and kick these people out,” Kaeseberg says. “It wasn’t necessary at all. They’re talking about massive crowds and the fact that they’d have to get these people out of the way, but there’s a sidewalk on either side of this two-lane street. They could’ve stayed there.”
The area is semi-dangerous, he says, with a shooting taking place just the other night, “but the folks under the bridges, they’re not in gangs, they’re just homeless people. And they survived the entire winter, 20 below zero, now they finally get a break, we have nice weather and they’re gone.”
Patricia Nix-Hodes of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless was in attendance on Tuesday morning during the removal. Her group settled a case with the city of Chicago earlier this year that amended the manner in which the city is meant to carry out such street-cleanings, stipulating that it provide ample notice, and requires the Department of Family and Support Services to be the primary point of contact for the homeless population as opposed to law enforcement, as it had been in the past.
What took place this week was different than standard procedure. At the time of the removal, a full day before the concert was originally scheduled to take place, there was no other concert preparation going on, erecting barricades, raising structures, and so on.
“With every other cleaning, the individuals who are homeless were not forced to leave, but because of the concert, the city was requiring that homeless people vacate the area,” Nix-Hodes says. “That raised a lot of concerns, particularly, was it even necessary to disperse them for the concert? If there really was a need to do so, our position was, the city should’ve provided a plan, communicated the plan, and provided an alternative for people, like short term housing situations, and help moving them and their belongings.”
“It’s very common for people to want to have people experiencing homelessness removed from areas where there’s going to be some kind of public event or concert and they don’t necessarily think about connecting people with resources to end the situations they’re in,” Lydia Stazen-Michael of homelessness outreach group All Chicago says. “It’s really about removing something that they perceive as nuance.”
On any given night there are 6,500 people living on the streets of Chicago, not including those in shelters, Stazen-Michael estimates.
“What has been happening in that particular area is a lot of people experiencing homelessness have been going under that aqueduct and throwing up tents, and creating a more stable settlement for themselves there. We’ve been seeing more of that for the past couple months. The people in that neighborhood are uncomfortable with that and feel like their neighborhood or quality of life is threatened by the presence of people experiencing homelessness.”
Matt Smith, spokesperson for the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services provided a statement to Noisey that pointed to the city’s “compassionate and consistent approach to ensure public safety and balance residents’ concerns while respecting the legal rights of the homeless and following legal agreements that govern how the city can interact with this vulnerable population.”:
“DFSS serves the city’s homeless population on a daily basis, providing shelter and services as needed. In certain areas, including the Wilson Avenue viaduct, the city performs monthly cleanings of the public way in addition to conducting homeless outreach through DFSS and our social service allies weekly and often on a more frequent basis. These routine cleanings include an advance notification period so that our homeless residents have ample time to prepare and remove their possessions from the area being cleaned.
Additionally, the city engages in periodic cleaning efforts in advance of large-scale events in which tens of thousands of pedestrians and cyclists are expected to be traveling through the area. These efforts are done in order to ensure that the public way is kept safe and accessible. This week, it just so happened that the monthly cleanup of the Wilson viaduct coincided with a necessary cleaning and securing of the public way in advance of a large event, the Mumford & Sons concert.”
Nix-Hodes disagrees with that sentiment, saying uncertainty and confusion have been rampant. “I think people were very upset, and I would describe them as being in a panic,” she says. “Part of the reason was that there was no clear communication to the people of what the process or procedure would be.”
A sign that had been posted announced a street cleaning at 10 AM on Tuesday, but with no additional information provided as to when they could return, or alternative locations they could go, or places to store their belongings, or about where the could later retrieve the ones that were taken away. Despite the cleaning being scheduled for 10, she says, by 9 AM that morning, the Chicago Park District was already on site removing people’s property.
“I would describe it as a situation of chaos,” Nix-Hodes says. “There had been different people coming through telling people when they had to leave. Some were told they could stay on an adjacent lot. Some went to a nearby lawn, after they were cleared out, and the police told them they had to disperse.” She and her colleagues were not instructed to leave themselves.
“The most common solution is to just remove people from the neighborhood,” Stazen-Michael says. “But the people experiencing homelessness have to go somewhere. It doesn’t solve a problem, it just moves it.”