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‘Where are we to go?’: Homeless people living in Wilson Avenue viaduct say city wants to kick them out

With overnight temperatures dropping into the teens this week, the 10 or so residents of the camp fear for their lives.

Residents of the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive and volunteers protest their potential eviction from their camp.
Residents of the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive and volunteers protest their potential eviction from their camp.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

The de facto leader of an Uptown homeless encampment says city workers showed up this week to kick them out.

No action had been taken as of Tuesday morning, but the residents of the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive held a news conference to call attention to their situation.

Tom Gordon, the so-called “mayor” of the tent city that has sprung up in the viaduct, said employees of the city Department of Transportation warned them of the impending eviction on Wednesday morning.

With overnight temperatures dropping into the teens this week, the 10 or so residents of the camp fear for their lives.

Gordon said his camp will not leave.

It all started with a yellow notice posted on the chipped-paint walls of the viaduct. The notice, from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation, seemed routine — just informing the camp-dwellers that the cleaning of the area around the street had been scheduled.

“It was weird, though, because none of the boxes were checked letting us know if it was going to be a mechanical sweeping or a power washing,” said Gordon. “They normally check a box but we didn’t think much about it at first.”

A Department of Streets and Sanitation posting notifying of routine off-street cleaning in the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive taken on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
A Department of Streets and Sanitation posting notifying of routine off-street cleaning in the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive taken on Monday, Dec. 16, 2019.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Monday morning was the assigned cleaning day, Gordon said, it was also the day the empty boxes on the notice began making sense. Gordon claims city officials, accompanied by a police officer, told camp residents they were evicted — immediately — from the space they have occupied for months now.

“There was no warning,” Gordon said. “They told us they were coming to clean and they hit us with a surprise ‘get out.’”

The eviction was handed out by two city departments, Gordon said: Streets and Sanitation, and Transportation, Gordon said.

But Streets and Sanitation spokeswoman Marjani Williams denied the agency had any role in evicting the camp.

The Department of Transportation didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment but a video posted on Facebook shows a heated exchange between city officials wearing a Department of Transportation jacket.

For 61-year-old Gordon, leaving that tunnel is the difference between life and death.

“Temperatures are dropping and these bridges will save our lives out here,” Gordon said. “If you take away the bridges and viaducts, where are we to go?”

Tom Gordon, dubbed the unofficial “mayor” of the tent city that has sprung up in the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive, said employees of the city Department of Transportation warned them of the impending eviction on Wednesday morning.
Tom Gordon, dubbed the unofficial “mayor” of the tent city that has sprung up in the Wilson Avenue viaduct at Lake Shore Drive, said employees of the city Department of Transportation warned them of the impending eviction on Wednesday morning.
Manny Ramos/Sun-Times

Gordon said places like the Wilson Avenue viaduct provides a haven from heavy snow and frigid winds. His tent has a better chance of withstanding the climate in the tunnel then out in the open.

Matthew Creasy also doesn’t intend to go anywhere.

“We’re staying here and fighting,” said Creasy, 39, adding that going to a shelter is sometimes dangerous; he was nearly robbed at one. Having a community of homeless people living together provides a certain level of security.

“We have a good relationships with everyone here. We look after each other,” Creasy said. “I don’t plan on going anywhere. The city will need to remove us with force.”

Coincidentally, the Supreme Court ruled Monday it refused to consider a case involving the rights of homeless people. In declining to hear the Idaho case, the court let-stand a lower-court ruling barring local governments from prosecuting homeless people for sleeping on the street.

Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.

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Posted by People's Tribune Chicago Area on Monday, December 16, 2019