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Massive Tent City cleanup biggest in recent memory, residents say

City crews clear brush and belongings from the Tent City Friday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

Bulldozers, chainsaws and piles upon piles of garbage bags marked one of the biggest cleanups in recent memory at the Tent City homeless encampment along the Dan Ryan Expressway on Friday morning.

City officials called it a routine maintenance that they performed after recently helping 17 residents find shelter away from one of Chicago’s longest-entrenched homeless dwellings, tucked between the highway and Desplaines Street from Taylor to Roosevelt.

Advocates and some dwellers called it the largest scraping they’ve seen at the site in several years.

“We haven’t seen the bulldozers out here in a long time,” resident Lee Jefferson said, who returned from work Friday afternoon to find that the tent he shared with a woman had been swept away.

“Now I don’t have sleeping quarters,” Rutherford said. “Now I’m going to be riding the L tonight.”

The aftermath of a spring cleaning on Friday at Tent City. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times
The aftermath of a spring cleaning on Friday at Tent City. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

With more than 20 city workers and private contractors hacking away at brush and hauling away swathes of detritus, about a dozen residents stood outside their tents, waving off workers to let them know they planned to stay despite the entreaties of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, which tried to persuade them to relocate to shelters.

“We have been working diligently to engage the homeless residents there,” department spokeswoman Cristina Villarreal said. “We have just gotten so many into shelter in recent days. We wanted to have an idea of who is left and how we can continue to engage them.”

Department of Family and Support Services workers speak with Tent City residents Friday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times
Department of Family and Support Services workers speak with Tent City residents Friday afternoon. | Mitchell Armentrout/Sun-Times

The city typically gives residents a week’s notice with in-person visits and signs before coming in for a cleanup.

For the residents who weren’t around Friday morning to lay claim to their belongings? Bobcats and bulldozers corralled their things into 5-foot-tall piles and massive refuse bins — with a few dwellers like Jefferson returning to find key documents and papers trashed.

“This is what always happens during cleanings,” Chicago Coalition for the Homeless attorney Diane O’Connell said. “You have a bunch of different agencies involved. They’re not communicating with each other. They’re not communicating with the people who live here. Things get chaotic.”

About 15 residents remained Friday afternoon, according to the city. There usually are anywhere from 15 to 40 people living there at any given time, residents say.

Fear had spread among residents last month that the city would clear the entire site following a fatal shooting of one dweller that allegedly happened at the hands of another.

“They wiped out a lot of the place,” one woman said. “But they’re not kicking us out yet.”