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Could ‘Tent City’ be shut down? Advocates fear for homeless as city plans cleanup

Chicago Fire Department firefighters remove propane tanks from the homeless encampment near Roosevelt Road and South Desplaines Street, overlooking the Dan Ryan Expressway, Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 30, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Chicago Fire Department firefighters remove propane tanks from the homeless encampment near Roosevelt Road and South Desplaines Street, overlooking the Dan Ryan Expressway, Wednesday afternoon, Jan. 30, 2019. | Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

Advocates for the homeless community are concerned that a planned street cleaning scheduled for next week at the site of a “Tent City” in the South Loop could lead to the shut down of the encampment, which lies on state-supported property.

Attorney Diane O’Connell, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said she fears that the street cleaning — which comes after a shooting on the property — could be used to force the homeless population out of the grassy embankment along the expressway near the 700 block of West Taylor.

Marjani Williams, spokeswoman for the Chicago Department of Sanitation, confirmed that city workers posted signs this week announcing the cleaning.

City and state official wouldn’t say whether the homeless population would be pushed out of the area during Monday’s cleaning.

“The state should not punish people for being homeless,” O’Connell told the Sun-Times. “The people who live in this location are struggling and forcing them to disperse would cause further harm.”

She added: “We have seen the city repeatedly displace homeless communities and are concerned that it, or the state, may do so.”

The uncertainty comes after 57-year-old Douglas Robinson was shot in his torso Monday following an argument over a heater at the homeless settlement, officials said. He later died. George A. Arroyo, 57, was charged with first-degree murder in the killing.

The shooting marks the second major public safety issue at the encampment since the start of the year — a propane tank exploded during January’s brutal polar vortex, temporarily displacing dozens of people living in the area. Officials confiscated propane tanks, and many homeless ended up staying at a Bronzeville hotel during the cold snap, thanks to the work of good Samaritans.

While the population goes up and down, advocates say there about 20 people living in the encampment currently. Any move to force the homeless out could potentially spark legal action against the city and state.

In 2017, O’Connell’s coalition and another advocacy group both sued the city when a planned construction project threatened to force homeless residents out of similar settlements below the Lake Shore Drive viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence avenues.

The suits, filed on behalf of residents of the tent city, were both eventually shot down, and the city wound up evicting about 75 homeless people from the area.

O’Connell said she and other members of her organization plan to show up at the South Loop settlement Monday morning to offer support to residents.

“We will keep an eye on the [current] situation by doing outreach and documenting such an event if it occurs,” O’Connell said. “We will consider legal action if people’s rights are violated.”

O’Connell’s nonprofit has sued the city two other times since former Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act in 2013. One of those suits was “settled favorably,” while the other case is ongoing, she said.

The law gives the homeless the right to “equal treatment by all State and Municipal agencies, without discrimination on the basis of housing.” Additionally, it allows homeless people “to use and move about freely in pubic spaces, in the same manner as any other person, and without discrimination on the basis of housing status.”

O’Connell claimed that junking homeless people’s property could also flout other protections laid out in the law, as well as the Fourth Amendment, which protects against illegal searches and seizures.

Chicago Department of Family and Support Services spokeswoman Jennifer Rottner told the Sun-Times that agency workers “continue to engage and assess residents at the location every day in an effort to encourage individuals to accept shelter and services.”

The decision on whether the homeless will be forced to leave is ultimately up to the state. Rottner and Illinois Department of Human Services spokeswoman Meghan Powers would say only that their agencies are working to ensure that homeless residents in the area are safe.

Guy Tridgell, spokesman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, echoed that line, adding that IDOT is discussing “possible solutions” with police and city officials to make sure that “appropriate resources and shelter options are provided” to those living in the area.