Homeless people locked out of O’Hare still have few options, months after crackdown: ‘Where am I supposed to go?’

Even as the city’s shelter system is taxed with an influx of new migrants, unhoused people are prevented from entering the airport they had used as a sanctuary.

SHARE Homeless people locked out of O’Hare still have few options, months after crackdown: ‘Where am I supposed to go?’
A Chicago police officer watches as people enter and exit from the CTA O’Hare Blue Line Station at O’Hare International Airport, Monday, June 12, 2023.

A Chicago police officer watches Monday as people enter and exit the CTA O’Hare Blue Line Station.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Time

Not long after unhoused residents in Chicago were publicly told they could no longer sleep at O’Hare Airport earlier this year, a man stood near the CTA’s Blue Line station there asking for spare change from people passing through during overnight hours.

“I’m very hungry,” the man said.

At the top of the escalator leading into the airport, a Chicago police officer stood guard as he and other cops stopped people who didn’t have suitcases or worker uniforms and badges. The officers did not appear to be asking anyone for identification as they turned homeless people away.

Unhoused people like those who arrived via the L that night in April had long used O’Hare for shelter. But in mid-February, national news coverage of the number of people spending the night at the airport prompted Mayor Lori Lightfoot to vow to stop them from doing so.

This month, questions about how to assist and protect unhoused people have intensified because of poor air quality here, in New York and in other cities. But even as City Hall has changed administrations, unhoused residents continue to be locked out of O’Hare.

At night, anyone arriving at O’Hare can be asked to provide evidence — such as an airline boarding pass or a work badge — that shows why they are at the airport, according to a statement from the Chicago Department of Aviation.

“In order to provide a secure environment at O’Hare International Airport, CDA security personnel work with the Chicago Police Department to enforce existing laws, which make clear that it is unlawful to be at Chicago’s airports without any airport business,” the agency said.

Since Lightfoot’s crackdown, police officers have been regularly stationed at the airport outside the Blue Line station, including this week. Late last month, four Chicago officers were there, and one was seen guiding a man wearing a coat and carrying a small duffel bag back to the train station where a worker for Haymarket Center — which provides services for unhoused individuals — handed out sandwiches to a group of men.

Mayor Brandon Johnson’s administration said that it was evaluating laws and security policies with other airports to guide what happens at O’Hare.

“Mayor Johnson is committed to the safety of all airport passengers and employees and he is working to identify solutions to the City’s housing crisis,” according to a statement from his office.

Johnson still supports proposals such the financial assistance program Bring Chicago Home because he “believes it can deliver real solutions to supporting unsheltered people and reducing homelessness,” his office said.

A no trespassing sign hangs on a support column near Terminal 2 at O’Hare International Airport, Monday, June 12, 2023.

A no trespassing sign is posted on a support column near Terminal 2 at O’Hare International Airport Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Thousands remain homeless in Chicago

The number of people in Chicago without shelter can vary depending on how the individuals are counted. A 2022 report from the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless estimated that more than 65,600 people in Chicago were experiencing some degree of homelessness. The organization includes people who are temporarily staying with others in their count.

Chicago’s Department of Family and Support Services recorded a far lower total in its annual count, which found that there were 6,139 individuals experiencing homelessness this year.

The need for more housing options has come to the forefront as city officials have struggled to find shelter beds for the more than 9,900 asylum seekers who have arrived in Chicago since August. In late May, there were 4,149 immigrants staying in city-run shelters, according to city officials.

At O’Hare, at least three dozen people were arrested and faced criminal charges, including trespassing, from January to March, according to data gathered from a Freedom of Information request.

One 30-year-old man was arrested Feb. 11 after officers spotted him sitting on a heating vent near Terminal 3’s baggage claim, police records show. The man cursed at officers after they told him he couldn’t be on the property if he wasn’t a passenger or worker.

About a month later, he pleaded guilty to criminal trespassing to state land, and he was sentenced to 30 days in jail, according to Cook County court records.

In the first three months of the year, the most arrests happened in late February after Lightfoot’s announcement, according to a review of police reports. A few of the 13 people arrested during that time period had been arrested previously at O’Hare, records show.

The enforcement actions at O’Hare have sparked concern from advocacy groups that rules aren’t being applied fairly, said Patricia Nix-Hodes, director of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless’ law project.

“How the situation at O’Hare was handled is not a solution to homelessness,” Nix-Hodes said. “It doesn’t provide housing to people experiencing homelessness. And in fact, it makes it even more difficult for service providers who are working with people to secure alternative and permanent housing to even find those people.”

A homeless man sleeps next to an elevator bank near Terminal 2 at O’hare International Airport, Thursday, Feb. 16, 2023.

A homeless man sleeps next to an elevator bank near Terminal 2 Feb. 16 at O’hare International Airport.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Turned away at O’Hare

One person who has sought shelter at O’Hare was Denise, who asked that her full name not be published. In February, she slept at O’Hare for three or four nights until she was awakened by a police officer.

“They said, ‘C’mon you can’t stay here,’” Denise said in an interview. “And so I sat up, put on my hat and starting going toward the Blue Line. And all three [officers] escorted me there. And I’m like, ‘Look, I don’t want to be here any more than you want to have people. Where am I supposed to go?’”

Denise said she later tried to return to O’Hare, but she was turned away. She ended up staying at a police station while trying to reach 311 to secure a spot at a shelter.

Eventually, volunteers who do homeless outreach on the city’s Northwest Side set her up with a hotel room until she was able to get placed into a supportive living facility, Denise said.

While Denise was able to connect to social services, others may lose that connection.

Nix-Hodes said officials should identify a path for permanent housing for people before pushing them out of locations like O’Hare. It’s difficult to get a bed at a shelter because they are over capacity, she said.

“That’s not a solution,” she said about pushing people out of O’Hare and encampments without any place to go. “That’s just keeping a certain group of people out of sight at a certain location.”

Two Chicago police officers help escort a man at O’Hare International Airport, Monday, June 12, 2023.

Two Chicago police officers escort a man from O’Hare International Airport Monday.

Tyler Pasciak LaRiviere/Sun-Times

How other cities handle unhoused people at airports

Chicago isn’t the only city where people experiencing homelessness turn to an airport for shelter. At John F. Kennedy Airport in Queens, New York, numerous travelers and staff members said they noticed an increase in the number of unhoused people living at the airport.

Like O’Hare, the airport is closed during overnight hours and only airport staff and ticketed passengers are allowed inside, according to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey.

The Port Authority said it has “long-standing arrangements with various outreach services that aid unhoused individuals to provide referrals and assistance to individuals needing shelter and related services.”

The services include assistance with processing social services assistance applications, placement into temporary or permanent housing and referral to mental health or medical facilities if needed.

In Southern California, a new program allows people living in their vehicles to stay at a secure parking lot at Los Angeles International Airport.

The program is the first in the country to receive approval, on a pilot basis, from the Federal Aviation Administration to use airport land for assisting unhoused residents, according to a news release from Los Angeles World Airports.

People living in their vehicles will be able to park at the lot overnight and be allowed access to restrooms, security and trash services, the release said.

Program participants have to leave the parking lot during the day and during hours of nonoperation, according to Los Angeles World Airports. They also must sign a code of conduct and are required to be enrolled in a program that will help them transition to more permanent housing

The yearlong project was set to begin with a “soft launch” early this month, Los Angeles World Airports told the Sun-Times.

In Chicago, Bring Chicago Home, a coalition of people experiencing homelessness and direct service organizations, made a proposal to the City Council to provide financial relief to more than 65,000 people affected by homelessness, according to the coalition’s website.

The proposal would raise a one-time tax by almost 2% on homes sold that are worth more than $1 million, according to the website. The money generated from the tax would then be dedicated to programs and housing to aid people experiencing homelessness, including veterans, children and women who are domestic violence survivors.

“I’m hopeful that there will be a different approach and that there will be support for” Bring Chicago Home, Nix-Hodes said.

Elvia Malagón’s reporting on social justice and income inequality is made possible by a grant from the Chicago Community Trust.

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