NOBLE SQUARE — The parking lot of a shuttered special education school, one of 49 schools closed this school year, has become a temporary shelter for a small but growing group of homeless people, neighbors say.
Initially, just one man was storing his "buggy" behind a dumpster once used by CPS' Near North Special Education School at 739 N. Ada St. in West Town's Eckhart Park neighborhood — a practice that started when David Moncada said he befriended a janitor at the school five years ago.
"I just have one buggy, these other people are going to ruin it for me," Moncada said Wednesday of the other homeless people that have been using a semi-enclosed area behind a dumpster, including a 47-year-old woman recovering from injuries suffered in an attack over the weekend.
Three weeks ago, the encampment expanded beyond Moncada when students did not return to the school, according to Jamie Thomas, executive director of a day care center located within a few hundred feet of the school.
Just south of Noble Square, Near North served 88 students in need of services to treat bipolar disorders, depression, emotional explosiveness and schizophrenia, according to a hearing officer's report published before the school's closure.
Since the school closed, Thomas said the homeless people living in the school's lot are the same group of people who sleep in Chicago Park District's Eckhart Park across from the school at 1333 W. Chicago and are evicted by the park staff every morning.
Thomas said she has called 311 about the "ongoing issue" and wondered why CPS has left the school's gates "wide open" and not locked them to prevent entry onto the empty parking lot.
"My biggest worry is cleanliness and safety," Thomas said.
Chris Stokes, 32, a makeup artist, lives across from the school with a window facing the parking lot.
Stokes said the people camping out there make her feel "unsafe" and wondered why the police have not removed the camp and CPS has not patrolled the lot.
Jim Brady lives near the school and said the group "even had a fire pit going one night."
In an email, Brady said his main concern was "safety for the neighborhood."
"I fear that their presence would bring more unwanted activity and safety concerns to the vacant school parking lot. We ultimately hope the school can be used for something productive that gives back to our neighborhood," Brady said.
Lat Thursday, CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett issued a statement saying the school system "is in the final stages of preparing these buildings for closure.
"During this time, CPS has taken steps to ensure all remain locked and secured and are proactively addressing any issues associated with the buildings on a case by case basis," the statement said.
Meanwhile, on sweltering summer days, the concrete walls once used to surround the school's dumpsters and trash bins have provided "a safe place" and cooling, Moncada said.
On Wednesday afternoon, a 47-year-old woman, whom DNAinfo is not naming, said she's been "hiding out" from an abusive ex-boyfriend.
Pulling herself up from a mattress on the concrete where she was resting, the woman, who had a swollen black eye, displayed bruises on her knees as well as cuts to her neck and arms.
Informed that the presence of homeless people has caused concern among people who live near the school, Moncada replied, "I'm homeless. Leave me the f--- alone. I ain't doing s--- to nobody."
Moncada said a man approached their camp on Tuesday and told him to leave by the end of the day Wednesday, but the man "was not a policeman."
Steve Niketopoulos, an organizer of the Noble Square Neighborhood Watch Facebook page, said a neighbor asked him to check out "the homeless people hiding behind blue dumpsters in the corner of the parking lot of Near North."
Niketopoulos said he spoke with two homeless men who told him that a security guard is letting them live on CPS property "as long as school is not in session."
"I thought that was interesting since this is a closed school, and wondered what that means for more homeless finding out about this parking lot," Niketopoulos said.
Niketopoulos said he had police "stop over to check on the site, but they were unable to do anything about it."
A police spokesman did not comment on the encampment. A woman who answered the phone at the Near West police district station said that anyone concerned about the issue can attend a meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday for Beat 1215, which encompasses the Near North School property.
Though the encampment has seen no violence or commotion, Niketopoulos said "the main neighbor concern is the impression it might give someone that no one in CPS cares about the safety of the school grounds, and would that lead to school break-ins and burglaries."
The trash bins and blue recycling bins once used by the school now house linens and bedding from seven people including himself, Moncada said.