On the shaded lawn of the Water Resources building near Lake Shore Drive in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood, people were packing up their belongings for the fourth time in two days.
Homeless individuals were living at the Wilson and Lawrence avenue viaducts under Lake Shore Drive in an area known as “Tent City.” For the past two years, their tents were pushed against the wall to allow a passable walkway for pedestrians on the 14-feet-wide sidewalks. An eviction deadline of 7 a.m. on Sept. 18 displaced those who had called the bridges home.
Tent City’s residents were given notice of the planned construction on the viaducts long before being forced out, but they received a specific eviction date one month in advance.
“We knew Monday morning on the 18th was going to be hell,” Raphael Mathis, a 49-year-old Tent City resident, said.
The project to renovate the viaducts would reportedly involve constructing a new bike path and addressing the structural integrity of the viaducts.
Andy Thayer, an activist for the Uptown Tent City Organizers — a grassroots organization that provided the homeless with tents and spreads awareness of the issue of homelessness in the ward — said the development is a classic case of “defensive architecture.”
Defensive architecture deliberately deters loitering in public spaces, according to Thayer. An example is a bus shelter. These roofed structures that protect passengers waiting for buses from the elements could be used by homeless residents to sleep under if not for defensive architecture, according to Thayer.
“[Defensive architecture] is why there are virtually no bus shelters in the ward … it’s also why benches have bumps in them: so people can’t sleep on them,” Thayer said.
The organizers worked with Tent City inhabitants to file an injunction aimed at stalling development on the viaducts. About 10 of the displaced individuals appeared in court with the organization on Sept. 14.
The following day, Magistrate Judge Sidney Schenkier ruled the homeless individuals’ presence was illegal and allowed construction to continue as early as Sept. 18.
As a result, Mathis — like most Tent City residents — began moving out the evening of Sept. 17 in compliance with the early morning deadline.
“I took my tent down, and then I was kind of like a rescue dog,” Mathis said. “I was just taking everybody’s tent down because I didn’t want anyone to lose their property.”
Streets and Sanitation workers went through the viaducts and removed remaining tents and belongings.
The city has been pushing the option of transferring individuals to homeless shelters, even offering transportation to the locations. Alderman James Cappleman, who represents the 46th Ward in which Tent City is located, hosted an event Sept. 8 through the Department of Family and Support Systems in the open space next to the viaducts, which connected individuals to “multiple providers, including emergency shelters, mental health services, addiction treatment and medical care,” according to a statement issued by the alderman’s office.
However, Thayer said the locations of proposed shelters such as Pacific Garden Mission in the West Loop pulls residents away from potential job openings in Uptown and the available resources for the mentally ill and substance abusers.
Carnell Willis, another Tent City inhabitant, 52, who was released from an Illinois Department of Corrections facility last spring, said he feels he has a better chance living on the street than in a shelter.
After the eviction from under the viaducts, inhabitants moved to two other open areas adjacent to Lake Shore Drive Sept. 18. They were forced to move both times, and then shifted to the lawn of the Water Resources building on Wilson Avenue and Marine Drive.
They were then told by the Water Department to vacate the premises by 11 p.m. on Sept. 19. It would be their fourth dismissal.
The amount of affordable housing in Uptown drastically decreased in the wake of the vote for the largest property tax increase in Chicago’s history, which went into effect in 2016 and has continued into this past summer. Cappleman voted in favor of the several million dollar tax increase.
Chicago’s Affordable Requirements Ordinance requires that rental units must be within reach of households making up to 60 percent of area median income. The influx of higher-income families and luxury apartments is displacing the long-term residents of Uptown who are unable to pay rent.
The statement from Cappleman’s office said his administration is making strides to “[add] more affordable housing units in the [ward] including forty-five Chicago Housing Authority Units and twenty-two Low Income Housing Trust Fund units (for individuals making 0-30 [percent] of the [Area Median Income]).”
A large part of the root problem of homelessness in Uptown is the closing of single-room occupancy (SRO) housing — multiple-tenant buildings with cheap prices, according to Thayer.
The affidavit of 59-year-old Bobby Williams, an inhabitant of the Wilson viaduct, said in the Uptown Tent City Organizers’ motion for injunction that “city representatives have promised to find me permanent housing, but nothing has materialized.”
Willis said he thinks the city’s budget largely ignores the homeless population and prefers they remain out of sight, out of mind.
“They don’t see us of value … it’s like we are not worth the money that they have available to invest in us,” Willis said.
Cappleman’s office said that although his ward has the most government-subsidized affordable housing in Chicago, it recognizes more is needed.
“All leaders need to step up to increase the amount of affordable housing for the most vulnerable residents of our city,” the statement said. “All Chicagoans should have access to safe housing.”