About two dozen community members gathered Dec. 23 at the viaduct at Wilson and Lake Shore Drive and marched to Preston Bradley Center, 941 W. Lawrence Ave., in a show of solidarity for persons experiencing homelessness.
The gathering, sponsored by Uptown Tent City Organizers, North Side Action for Justice, Gay Liberation Network and other local community organizations, was both a celebration of the reprieve given to the shelter, located in the the Preston Bradley basement, originally scheduled to close the same day, and a call-to-action on behalf of persons living in the Uptown viaducts.
The shelter is operated by North Side Housing & Supportive Services and has 72 beds. Its closing was announced earlier in 2016; North Side Executive Director Richard Ducatenzeiler cited the state budget crisis and a persistent $100,000 deficit as the main reasons. But a last-minute reversal came the previous day.
Ald. James Cappleman (46th) posted to Twitter on Dec. 22, "Great news that the Northside Shelter will remain open thru the holidays & I am working with DFSS & Mayor to keep open indefinitely."
In a press release, the shelter stated: "The 72-bed shelter for homeless men … will remain open due to a large, multi-year donation from the Chicago-based Reva and David Logan foundation and renewed support from the Chicago Department of Family and Support Services (DFSS)."
"This eleventh-hour donation has saved the shelter from permanently closing at the end of today, December 23, as previously announced," said Ducatenzeiler. "Support from the community during this period was overwhelming. We hope that the interest, and financial support, remains strong so we can continue to provide these critical services to our community. We will continue the fight to end homelessness in Chicago and hope that all Chicagoans will join us."
Andy Thayer of Uptown Tent City Organizers and Gay Liberation Network called the reprieve "a victory you all won. This was not the politicians. This was not the wealthy."
The shelter, which operates 365 days a year, is the only emergency shelter for men in the Uptown neighborhood. In 2016, it served more than 300 men and since the agency took over operations in 2012, more than 1,000 men have been served, they said.
Roger Fraser of Gay Liberation Network criticized the alderman for taking sole credit in the reprieve, and for thanking Mayor Emanuel. Instead, Fraser said in a letter that Uptown Tent City should receive credit for its role in putting pressure on the situation.
"This savvy pressure group was composed of ordinary people doing extraordinary things," Fraser said. "They learned as they went along and became more and more effective; they planned their demos carefully and made sure TV cameras were rolling and reporters were taking notes every time they confronted an embarrassed Cappleman." Fraser added that "time and again they faced down city cops intent on harassing the homeless and intimidating them out of their tents under the viaducts."
Fraser concluded: "Uptown Tent City shows us how it should be done: Organize, discuss tactics, admit mistakes, be inclusive, demonstrate, be in the streets, get the press to events. Mobilize people with the energy and foresight and modesty to do the hard and largely thankless work of movement building. We thank Uptown Tent City not only for winning a stunning victory but for showing us all the way forward in dark times."
Despite the coalition's good news this week, the organizers pointed to difficulties faced by persons forced to live beneath the viaducts. That morning, residents had to drag their belongings out from the underpass while city workers performed a large-scale cleaning, which is a weekly or bi-weekly occurrence. Much of the cleaning occurred at the same time as the demonstration.
"There's no doubt that these cleanings are harassment," said activist Ryne Poelker.
Maria Murray, who along with her husband Joe lives at one of the viaducts, expressed frustration with what she said was stalling by city officials over a solution.
"We're hearing, 'It's going to take time,'" she added. … "It changes minute by minute."
Joe added, "We need support from the community, to show that they care about the homeless."
"Two days before Christmas, this is what you do for the homeless?" asked Poelker.
The sweeps under the Wilson viaducts and other places homeless sleep through the city come under the Bryant Agreement signed in 2015 by by the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless and the city of Chicago's law department. In that agreement, the city agreed to pay $42,500 to the homeless who sued the city for taking their materials illegally in an earlier sweep.
They sued under the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and the Illinois Bill of Rights for the Homeless Act, and further alleged that the city had breached the settlement agreement in a prior federal lawsuit, Love. v. City of Chicago (1996).
But the Bryant agreement still allows the city to come in and do periodic off-street cleaning.
In the agreement, the city designated that the homeless would be allowed to keep certain "portable" items but not other items. So in the Dec. 23 sweep, many items belonging to the homeless were thrown out by the city. There were dozens of city employees from various departments, plus city garbage trucks, and other city vehicles, used to sweep the Wilson viaduct that morning. Chicago Police officers watched over the action.
The Bryant language states: "'Portable personal possessions' means that each homeless person may have only the following items with him or her in the Lower Wacker Drive Area or in the other areas covered by these procedures: a sleeping bag or bedroll, not more than two coats, not more than two pairs of shoes or boots, not more than five blankets, and not more than three bags or suitcases, and such contents as may be contained in said bags or suitcases. From October through April, homeless persons also may have up to five additional blankets and one additional sleeping bag or bedroll with them in the Lower Wacker Driver Area. 'Portable personal possessions' do not include, among other items, non-air mattresses, box springs, potted plants, crates, large appliance boxes, carts, gurneys, wagons, or furniture, including, but not limited to, chairs, tables, couches, and bed frames.'"
People who have experienced the sweeps claim the city takes far more than they should, and in the materials being swept up Dec. 23 there were extensive items of clothing items and food. Since it was just before the holidays, many people from the general public had just recently donated items to those living under the viaduct.
See the complete Bryant agreement here: law.alumni.northwestern.edu/s/1479/images/gid4/editor_documents/bryant_settlement_agreement.pdf .