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Skeptics slam mayor’s homeless plan

To alleviate poverty and homelessness, Chicago needs job training and affordable housing. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Skeptics expressed concern Monday morning about a pilot program to find housing for 75 chronically homeless people now living in tent encampments along viaducts beneath Lake Shore Drive near the Uptown neighborhood on the North Side.

They also dismissed a related effort to use taxes from Airbnb and similar services to fund homeless assistance services.

“The whole effort is to clean out the viaducts for yuppies going to festivals after they spent a whole winter of ignoring the problem,” said Andy Thayer, 56, who banded together with several other activists to form a group they’re calling Uptown Tent City Organizers.

Lisa Morrison Butler, commissioner of the Department of Family and Support Services, the main city agency charged with combating homelessness, said the assertion is not true, and outreach workers had visited folks underneath the viaducts throughout the winter to offer them support services.

“Wherever we see homeless encampments, they concern us,” she said before ticking off a number of smaller tent communities, including one located on the banks of the Chicago River and another clustered along a highway underpass. “What’s different about those other places is that those are smaller groups. We felt for the pilot to be legitimate we needed to have enough folks to be a good cross section of the chronically homeless.”

The four crowded North Side viaducts fit that bill, she said.

“What we’ve done is start with one group that is big enough where we can take the lessons learned and apply them to other groups,” Morrison Butler said.

Ryne Poelker, a formerly homeless Uptown resident, said Monday that after the 75 people are gone, along with their tents, other homeless people will probably just take their place.

“Are they going to go back to the old antics of kicking people out and giving tickets?” he asked, referring to previous police treatment of the homeless.

“This is a small Band-Aid on a large gaping wound. There’s 125,000 homeless people and we have 75 people being housed,” he said.

Morrison Butler said that a count done by the city last January tallied about 6,700 people living outdoors in Chicago. An updated count conducted by the city earlier this year will be complete by the end of the month, she said.

Estimates on the number of homeless vary greatly because some include people whose housing situation is “unstable,” such as a teenager who is couch surfing with friends in lieu of a permanent home.

Morrison Butler said she knows the pilot program, which takes the novel step of offering the chronically homeless a place to live before addressing the issues that put them on the street, “will not fix every homeless situation we have in the city.” But it’s worth trying, she said.

On Monday morning, Emanuel said he would “like to do more” than create a pilot proram.

That’s why he agreed to sign on to a plan proposed by Aldermen James Cappleman (46th) and Ameya Pawar (47th) to double — from 2 percent to 4 percent — the mayor’s proposed surcharge on Airbnb and other home-sharing services.

“You have a new industry emerging called Airbnb. It will compete with the hotels, but people will choose if that’s how they want to stay. But that should become a resource for permanent funding to address the concern of homelessness so people who are living under bridges, living under Lower Wacker, we can provide them a shelter and all the social services,” Emanuel said.

“Two percent provided $1 million. Four percent is close to $2 million and 300 to 400 families. And I believe we can both create an opportunity for a new industry in Chicago — which is if you want to stay at somebody’s home, do it the right way — and then the resources to provide our homeless a roof over their head,” he said. “I consider that a win-win.”

During his first term as mayor, Emanuel argued that he made “great strides” delivering on his goal of ending homelessness among veterans. He also freed up resources to provide up to 200 beds for homeless youths while creating “drop-in centers” to provide support services for them.

Now, it’s time to address the burgeoning problem of homeless people living under Chicago viaducts, he said. And it’s not about cleaning out the lakefront in time for the summer concert season.

“There were other people complaining that those people needed to have a home. . . . I would like to do more. And one of the ways we’re trying to do more is by changing the law so, as Airbnb is a new industry, it becomes a revenue stream to provide for people a roof over their head and all the social services that come with it,” Emanuel said.

“Mark my words, since other mayors in other cities are dealing with the challenges of homelessness, they will see what we’re doing in Chicago with the new industry around Airbnb becoming a source of providing permanent funding for a homelessness agenda,” he said. “That’s a pilot project [for 75 people]. Now, we’re on the doorstep of actually coming up with a permanent revenue source to continue to invest in homelessness.”

Poelker said revenue collected from the the proposed tax would not be nearly enough.

“If this a priority to him, maybe he can give as much resources towards housing people as he has been towards the Lucas Museum,” said Poelker, referring to Emanuel’s effort to bring film director George Lucas’ museum to Chicago’s lakefront.

“What are the mayor’s priorities here?”

Laura Schwartz is on the list of 75 people who would receive housing, but she said she hasn’t been told anything else, such as where she would go or when. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Laura Schwartz is on the list of 75 people who would receive housing, but she said she hasn’t been told anything else, such as where she would go or when. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times

Laura Schwartz, who lives in a tent under the Wilson Avenue viaduct and is on the list to receive housing, said she and her neighbors have some unanswered questions that are causing anxiety since signing on to the pilot program.

“We haven’t heard anything else, like where they’re going to put us, when they’re going to do it,” she said.

“There’s just a lot uncertainty. We’re just sitting here hanging on,” she said.

“We have tried to be as transparent as possible,” Morrison Butler said. “I can appreciate that the residents are anxious. Living with anxiety is something they’re all too familiar with.”

Morrison Butler said outreach workers are meeting with homeless people — including about a dozen Monday morning — to figure out their needs and match them with services and housing. “It is not our goal or our desire to move people from Uptown,” she said. “So we are working very hard to identify units for these folks that will address their needs and meet their approval.”

Cappleman, who has struggled with finding solutions to homelessness in his Uptown ward, did not respond to a request for comment.

Homeless people under Lake Shore Drive, many convinced the city would like to just put up the sort of spiky metal contraptions used to keep pigeons off bus stops where their tents are, will believe the housing is for real when they see it.

“Living isn’t easy here,” said one man standing near his tent. He pointed out a rat trap he set nearby to try to keep the rodent population under control. A futile effort, he acknowledged with a laugh.

Emanuel’s administration is aiming to find the 75 homeless people a place to live within 60 to 90 days. The clock started ticking April 5.

“You can look away, or you can see an entire community underneath the viaduct of Lake Shore Drive,” Emanuel said last Friday after announcing the plan. “I need to make sure they have a roof over their heads.”

Contributing: Fran Spielman, Mark Brown

Skeptics say that as people living in this Lake Shore Drive overpass are provided with housing, there are plenthy of other homeless people ready to take their place. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times
Skeptics say that as people living in this Lake Shore Drive overpass are provided with housing, there are plenthy of other homeless people ready to take their place. | Mitch Dudek/Sun-Times