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City Council member demands broader solution to homelessness in Chicago

A City Council committee extended an alternative housing deal with a downtown hotel through the winter. But Ald. Walter Burnett said more must be done. “If we don’t do anything soon to help these folks, they’re just gonna take liberties and sleep in our backyards.”

Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road.
Workers from the city’s Department of Streets and Sanitation clear out a homeless encampment near South Desplaines Street and West Roosevelt Road last year.
Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

A City Council committee agreed Tuesday to extend an alternative housing agreement with a downtown hotel through the winter amid demands for a broader solution to help Chicago’s burgeoning homeless population.

“I find myself in quagmires all the time with people complaining about people being on the street. … People are giving ’em tents and they’re setting up all over. Everywhere you go, you see a tent now,” said Near West Side Ald. Walter Burnett (27th).

“I went to L.A. and I saw tents all up and down the street. If we don’t do anything soon to help these folks, they’re just gonna take liberties and sleep in our backyards. … We need to think deeper and further than this … or we’re gonna find ourselves in a position where we’re gonna be walking over people every day all the time.”

In March 2020, the Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave., was one of four Chicago hotels owned by Oxford Capital Group LLC that agreed to rent rooms to isolate patients who tested positive for the coronavirus or had been exposed to someone who had. Some rooms also would provide a “sanctuary for first-responders” between shifts.

The four hotels joined a network of hotel rooms intended to ease the strain on overburdened hospitals.

The agreement — to rent 175 rooms at a daily rate of $99 per room, including three meals a day and support services — already had been extended once, for three months.

The Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave.
A City Council committee on Tuesday approved extending an agreement with the Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave., to rent 175 rooms at a daily rate of $99 per room, including three meals a day and support services. Those rooms can be used as transitional housing for homeless residents.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

On Tuesday, the Council’s Housing Committee authorized yet another extension, expiring Feb. 28, 2022. Same number of rooms. Same terms. Same targeted population: single men, primarily over 60, with chronic health conditions.

Maura McCauley, deputy commissioner for homeless and domestic violence services for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, said City Hall has worked to “help the shelter system safely return to normal where possible.”

But McCauley noted adult shelters are “very large congregational spaces that, under current circumstances with the pandemic, are not able to return to complete bed capacity” until sometime next year.

“We will need some version of shelter decompression for the near future,” she said.

Noting that 130 men once put up at the Hotel Julian now have permanent housing, McCauley said: “People do better in the privacy of their own rooms, when they have access to a shower and food and private space. We’ve seen a lot of different improvements.”

Under questioning, McCauley acknowledged only 73 of the 175 rooms are occupied.

“Perhaps there could be a concerted effort to get chronically homeless individuals steered in this direction,” Ald. Sophia King (4th) told McCauley.

“Since we have all of these rooms and we’re paying for them, I would like to be part of trying to figure out how to get some of the chronically homeless folks into this opportunity. I would like to see us get to 100% room occupancy ... and perhaps open it up to a larger population, if that targeted one is not yielding a higher percentage.”

That prompted downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) to declare this the third and final extension.

“The Hotel Julian is a hotel and they plan on becoming one again in the spring,” he said.

“This is not a new housing facility for single rooms that folks can avail themselves of for the foreseeable future. This is a very interim condition that will change in the spring.”

But, Reilly added: “This may be a bigger conversation about single rooms and having them downtown and throughout the city.”

The Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave.
The Hotel Julian, 168 N. Michigan Ave., has a contract with the city to rent 175 rooms on a short-term basis to homeless individuals. At a committee meeting Tuesday at which an extension of that deal was approved, a city official said 130 men once housed at the Hotel Julian now have permanent housing.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Burnett noted many people the city is targeting — elderly homeless men with chronic health conditions — also are military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health challenges.

He commended Reilly for allowing downtown hotels to be used to house those men, even temporarily.

“I know you have a community that don’t feel as comfortable as other people do with having them stand around there because when they come out, they’re all over the place,” Burnett said.

Regal project land sale OK’d

Also on Wednesday, the Housing Committee agreed to sell six parcels of vacant, city-owned land in South Shore for an appraised value of $31,000. The buyers are the developers of a $60 million project: Regal Mile Studios. The parcels are to be used as a parking lot.

The ambitious project at 7731 S. Chicago Ave. — with six studios for film and television production — is being spearheaded by Chicago-born rapper Common and producer Derek Dudley.

Dudley has said the project could anchor a South Side entertainment district including the nearby Avalon Regal Theater.

Local Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th) said she is “ecstatic” about the film studio project that will only strengthen Chicago’s reputation as the Hollywood of the Midwest.

“What makes it even better is that they are former residents who are doing things to help improve the community,” Hairston said.