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Brown: Homeless get ‘cleaned’ out of South Loop tent city

Cynthia Warner and Scott Murphy outside their tent alongside the Chicago River just north of the River City condominiums, where yellow Off-Street Cleaning signs posted on trees alerted tent city dwellers that it may be time to move. | Mark Brown/Sun-Times

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Cynthia Warner, 56, lives in a tent alongside the Chicago River on a long vacant parcel of land between Harrison Street and the River City condominiums.

Construction crews on Monday began fencing off the east half of the property along Wells Street for what is expected to be a new luxury apartment development.

Then on Tuesday, somebody from the city posted yellow “Off-Street Cleaning” notices on the trees besides the tent city where Warner and maybe 20 others have been camped through the winter.

Warner and the other homeless people believe the intent is to clear them out starting Wednesday morning.

Do they belong there?

No.

But as always, the question is: Where do they belong?

OPINION

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Warner doesn’t have a plan. She may just move to another homeless encampment further south along the river.

“The thing is they really didn’t give us any time,” she said.

Her actual sleeping tent is located beneath a larger lean-to constructed with tarps and ropes that also covers the rest of her worldly possessions.

“I have worked very hard on getting this stuff. I don’t want to lose it,” she told me. “I have walked alleys and everything to get this stuff.”

A spokesman said the city followed “standard procedures” by giving 24-hour notice and will have its Homeless Outreach and Prevention team on site to offer assistance to those being displaced.

Warner, who grew up in Decatur and later lived in Champaign, said she arrived in Chicago more than three years ago, coming straight from prison.

“I came here to start over,” she said.

It hasn’t really worked out the way she’d hoped.

She figures she’s stayed in five or six different shelters during that period, moving on each time after exhausting the four-month maximum stay.

She ticks off the names: Grace House, Hope House, Breakthrough, Deborah’s Place and Pacific Garden Mission on two occasions.

Warner said she’d rather live in a tent than a shelter because she’s used to being independent and doesn’t like “somebody looking over my shoulder and telling me what to do.”

Her friend, Scott Murphy, stays with her “every now and then” when he isn’t in a shelter himself. She knows him from Downstate.

Warner says her prison term for burglary stemmed from some kind of run-in with Murphy’s sister. It got too complicated for me to sort out. She caught a three-year prison sentence and served one.

Warner said she’s been at the Chicago River spot for some eight months. Before that, she and Murphy lived in a similar setup in the Illinois Medical Center District, but were forced to move.

“Now, they’re doing it to us again,” she said.

Warner took it upon herself to approach the man who seemed to be supervising the construction crew to find out for herself what was to become of her.

“He said he was not going to be the bad guy to tell us to leave. He said he’s going to leave that up to the Police Department and the city,” she said.

The tent city is plainly visible from both the surrounding high-rises and the architectural river cruises, which have only just resumed for the season.

As I was talking to Dan Suerth, another of the area’s inhabitants, a tour boat, passed. I could hear the tour host saying “and here on your left,” trying in vain to direct the tourists’ gaze past the tents to architect Bertrand Goldberg’s handiwork at River City.

“It’s funny. The people giving the tours will be talking about the Post Office or this building, but everybody on the boat will be taking pictures of the tents,” Suerth said.

I doubt everyone was as amused.

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