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BROWN: Who’s on first as lawsuit filed on behalf of tent city homeless

Activist Andy Thayer announces that a lawsuit has been filed to block
a construction project that would displace homeless encampments
beneath Lake Shore Drive at the Wilson and Lawrence viaducts. | Mark
Brown/Sun-Times

It’s getting so that you can’t tell the players at a homeless rights rally without a scorecard.

A group of activists filed a federal lawsuit Monday against the city of Chicago over its plans to remove homeless encampments from beneath two Lake Shore Drive viaducts slated for repair.

This may ring a bell with some of you who will recall a column earlier this month about the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless threatening to go to court to block the construction project that is scheduled to begin Sept. 18.

This is not that lawsuit.

OPINION

The homeless coalition has yet to go to court over the viaducts, although I’m told its lawsuit could be filed by next week.

Monday’s suit was filed by all-purpose protester Andy Thayer and his newly formed, ad hoc Tent City Alternative to LSD viaducts.

A veteran activist probably better known for his anti-war and LGBT rights protests, Thayer for the past two years has conducted his homeless activism under the heading of Uptown Tent City Organizers.

Uptown Tent City Organizers should not be confused with Tent City Voices Heard, an association formed by the viaduct residents to fight for themselves with help from the community organizing group, ONE Northside.

ONE Northside, which has done most of the boots-on-the-ground organizing under the viaduct in cooperation with the homeless coalition, did not participate in Monday’s press conference announcing the lawsuit.

Northside Action for Justice, an entirely different organization allied with Thayer, did send representatives.

If your head is spinning, join the club.

The homeless people have adopted the right attitude about these sometimes competing interests.

As long as they believe someone genuinely wants to help, they’re happy to cooperate. Accordingly, several homeless leaders from Tent City Voices Heard spoke at Thayer’s press conference.

As far as I’m concerned, the more the merrier when it comes to finding people to stick up for the homeless.

But it’s also important to understand there are folks with different agendas and methods working on these issues.

For instance, I’ve sometimes heard people complain about the Coalition for the Homeless providing tents to the people under the viaducts, except it didn’t.

The tents were the brainstorm of Thayer’s Uptown Tent City Organizers, which began supplying them two years ago.

Homeless people were already people living under the viaducts at the time. Then a few started pitching tents, sometimes under the viaduct and sometimes in the nearby park. The city and Park District responded aggressively, confiscating and disposing of the tents.

The Uptown Tent City Organizers raised the political stakes by giving tents to as many homeless people as possible. In addition to making it much more humane for those living on the street, the tents made it more difficult for Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration to take action against the homeless while at the same time increasing community pressure to “do something.”

Although it didn’t provide the tents, the homeless coalition has fought hard ever since for the right of the viaduct residents to keep them.

But now the city says everyone must vacate the two viaducts at Lawrence and Wilson while it repairs crumbling concrete.

The project also includes installation of new bike lanes on the sidewalks where the homeless currently sleep. The homeless coalition argues the design is part of an illegal scheme to remove them permanently.

Alan Mills, executive director of the Uptown People’s Law Center who filed the lawsuit on behalf of Thayer’s group, is arguing a different legal theory — based on the city’s previous refusal to give the homeless people permission to pitch their tents at an alternative location in front of the former Stewart School on Broadway.

Thayer said his group will fully support the homeless coalition’s lawsuit if it files one.

If you’re thinking this looks like a good cop/bad cop routine, I’m not sure they’re quite that well coordinated.