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Homeless allowed to stay at South Loop ‘Tent City’ — for now

Chicago police officers and Illinois State Police troopers oversee a scheduled cleaning at the "Tent City" homeless encampment Monday in the South Loop. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

City and state workers showed up en masse Monday at the “Tent City” encampment in the South Loop to clean up and offer housing to homeless residents, but no one was rousted from the area as some advocates had feared.

Last week, city workers posted signs for a street cleaning near the settlement, which lies on a grassy patch of land along the Dan Ryan Expressway near the 700 block of West Taylor.

Prior to the cleaning, homeless advocates and people living in the area expressed concern that city or state authorities would shut down the encampment after 57-year-old Douglas Robinson was killed, allegedly by a fellow “Tent City” resident. The slaying happened just weeks after dozens of homeless residents were temporarily displaced when a propane tank exploded during January’s punishing polar vortex.

Jermaine Nelson stands at the “Tent City” homeless encampment ahead of a scheduled cleaning Monday. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

The killing “has a lot of residents over here uneasy because they’re unsure of their next move, what may transpire with their temporary residence over here,” said Jermaine Nelson, a “Tent City” resident who has been staying at hotel in Dolton since the shooting.

“It’s been a little difficult, but we’re managing,” Nelson added. “We have organizations coming out here to work with us. We wish we could get a little bit more help from the state, we wish we could get some help from the city, period.”

A rush of officials showed up at the site while Nelson and other homeless residents were holding a press conference.

Illinois State Police troopers and Chicago police officers parked on the shoulder of a nearby expressway exit ramp and looked on as social workers with the city’s Department of Family and Support Services offered aid and housing to the community. A short time later, a city Streets and Sanitation crew drove a garbage truck to the area to pick up a large pile of trash that was sitting near the encampment.

But officials and city workers didn’t attempt to boot any residents from the area — something that happened in 2017 when the city forced the homeless population out from under the Lake Shore Drive viaducts in Uptown ahead of a planned construction project.

On Monday, city social workers offered homeless residents the option to relocate to the Franciscan Outreach shelter at 1856 S. Loomis St. in Pilsen.

Lee Jefferson stands in front of his tent Monday at the South Loop homeless encampment where a man was shot and killed last week. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times

Lee Jefferson —  who has been living at “Tent City” for four years — said he was considering taking up the offer despite having bad experiences with shelters in the past. Jefferson noted that the winter’s frigid weather — including single-digit temperatures early Monday — and high winds were taking a toll.

“I think we can deal with another shelter,” Jefferson said. “This cold weather ain’t good. I don’t like it. It got real cold last night.”

Family and Support Services spokeswoman Jennifer Rottner said six “Tent City” residents were taken to the shelter, which still has 22 beds available. Rottner said agency workers would be making daily visits to the area “to encourage residents to accept shelter.”

Attorney Diane O’ Connell, of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said the shelter offers some things that would appeal to homeless residents: couples can stay together, pets are welcome, there are lax rules for curfew and residents have space to store their belongings.

“It has been a good place for some of the people that I’ve talked to that have actually gone there,” O’Connell said. “Hopefully, some people will give it a chance.”

However, the shelter may not have the capacity to house the entire “Tent City” population, which O’Connell said fluctuates between 20 and 40 people.

Last week, O’Connell said her nonprofit would potentially take legal action if the city or state evicts residents from the South Loop encampment. Her group has sued the city three times since former Gov. Pat Quinn signed off on the Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act in 2013. The law allows homeless people to freely use public spaces and protects against housing discrimination.

Despite the support Monday from city workers, it remains unclear whether officials will take further action to move the homeless community out of the area — or who is responsible for the land.

Last week, Illinois State Police officials said the fatal shooting happened on state-supported property, and city officials referred questions to state officials on whether the homeless would be allowed to stay. But Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Guy Tridgell said Monday further review found the encampment “is under the city’s jurisdiction.”

“The department does not have a presence at this site,” Tridgell said.

City officials, however, maintained that the land was not under city jurisdiction.

Jermaine Nelson and other “Tent City” residents hold a press conference before city officials arrived to clean the area and offer services on Monday. | Tom Schuba/Sun-Times