Tent builder says city will no longer remove shelters housing the homeless

Andy Robledo has bought 140 tents in the last year to shelter the homeless on Chicago streets. He says the city will stop tagging tents for removal.

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A row of tents set up under a West Loop viaduct.

Cold-weather tents provided by Andy Robledo line a viaduct in the West Loop. After meeting with city officials, Robledo said, “They don’t support the tents. They don’t want to encourage it. But they’re not going to take them down.”

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The man who’s been buying orange tents for Chicago’s homeless population says the city will no longer threaten to remove them.

The Department of Family and Support Services has stopped attaching red tags to the tents indicating the city will remove the tents on a certain date, says Andy Robledo. He met with department leadership more than a week ago on the issue.

“They don’t support the tents. They don’t want to encourage it. But they’re not going to take them down,” Robledo said.

He has set up 140 high-quality cold-weather tents in the last year in a campaign to help homeless people survive the city’s frigid winters. The people who live in the tents say the removal tagging leaves them on edge, worried they will lose their shelter.

Robledo said the city “got the message” after he first got media attention in October, when the city placed removal tags on tents in the West Loop.

He said he was happy the city was “open to a conversation and they’re open to learning. I think they’ve taken the right stance on this by not taking them down.”

Andy Robledo (in blue jacket) stands beside people holding signs during a gathering to stop the City of Chicago from evicting people who live in tents under a viaduct on North Clinton Street and North Milwaukee Avenue in the West Loop, Thursday, Nov. 3, 2022.

Andy Robledo joins others protesting efforts by the city to remove people living in tents under a viaduct in the West Loop in November.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The city has not publicly acknowledged that it changed its policy on tagging tents for removal.

A city spokesperson did not immediately comment.

In their meeting, the city and Robledo agreed to coordinate on cleanups at homeless camps, he said. Robledo and his volunteers have regularly cleaned the camps of trash, but the trash had often been left in piles waiting to be picked up by the city.

Last Monday, the city helped Robledo and his crew clean up the Tent City camp along the Dan Ryan Expressway at Taylor Street. “It was cool to see them stand up on that side of the bargain,” Robledo said.

Although the city won’t remove tents, Robledo said they agreed the city could remove damaged, dilapidated or abandoned dwellings.

The need for tents has grown, Robledo said. “If someone moves out of a tent, there’s two people ready to move into it, he said.

The city identified 3,023 people living on the street and in shelters in its 2021 count. Between 702 and 1,454 of those people were living on the streets, according to count’s estimate.

Robledo and his nonprofit, Feeding People Through Plants, spend about $350 on each orange tent, which are double-walled ice fishing tents. During tent builds, Robledo says up to 40 volunteers show up to help.

A person walks past tents of people who are experiencing homelessness under a viaduct on North Clinton Street and North Milwaukee Avenue in the West Loop, Nov. 3, 2022.

The city identified 3,023 people living on the street and in shelters in a 2021 count. Andy Robledo says if someone moves out of a tent, there are two people ready to move into it.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The city has acknowledged that homelessness is not illegal, but it remains focused on getting people permanent shelter and housing — not tents. But Robledo said the waitlist for housing is too long.

“I don’t have the capacity to bring everyone to housing. The city has the ability to do that. We’re trying to increase the chances of survival. Why doesn’t the city fund me?” he asked.

Robledo was impressed by newly elected Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass’ emergency declaration to address homelessness. The declaration gives the mayor more power to spend money on facilities and programs without City Council approval or a bidding process. Robledo wants Mayor Lori Lightfoot to take the same approach.

“The same emergency is happening in our neighborhoods and it won’t go away. We need to use our collective efforts to get people into housing now,” Robledo said.

He has set his sights on developing tiny homes, a housing solution more permanent that tents. Robledo said he was speaking with people about developing a prototype tiny home that would cost $1,000. Lightfoot’s new budget sets aside $3 million for a pilot to build tiny homes.

“If you lose in the game of capitalism, you end up on the street,” Robledo said. “That shouldn’t be the bottom. You should at least have a roof over your head.”

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