AVONDALE — Construction is underway on concrete barriers designed to make it harder for the homeless to camp out under a Northwest Side overpass, a change that some suspect will only move the transients elsewhere.
The 5½-foot tall concrete fillers are being placed between support beams under the Kennedy Expy. at the Belmont/Kedzie underpass in a city and state effort to address safety and security complaints. The concrete pieces are sloped at the top to prevent the homeless from sleeping between the support beams.
The underpass is well-known as a homeless encampment going back nearly a decade, according to the Avondale Neighborhood Association.
And while the low-lit sidewalk under the expressway can be dangerous, the group questioned whether removing the makeshift bunks will solve the problem of homelessness in the neighborhood.
Emily Taylor, association president, said, "Our perspective is that the people living under there should be seen as our neighbors."
She acknowledged that “If you are trying to walk that sidewalk at night, it can be scary because you don’t know who’s under there," but she added, "The idea of putting up these blockades is that you’re just shifting the problem and not solving it.”
Ald. Rey Colon (35th) said he had met with a variety of organizations, including the city and state transportation departments, to figure out a way to create “a less comfortable sleeping arrangement” at the site.
No one wants to move the encampment to a new location without resources, Colon said, but having the transients take advantage of services for the homeless has been difficult.
“For the most part, they often return and resume the encampment," Colon said.
"People are afraid to walk through there with everyone laying around,” he said, adding that he recently used part of his office's discretionary money to improve lighting and keep pigeons away from the area.
"I'm not trying to displace people, or put people in a bad predicament, so I sympathize," Colon said. "The issue is that’s not really an acceptable place for that encampment to be."
Several homeless men at the site Wednesday said there has been trouble at the camp over the years, but for them, it is a reliable, relatively safe, place. As many as 12 people camp there each night, said Lazaro Alcazar, 56, who has lived at the underpass for two years.
“It’s not bad people here, just people who don’t have nothing to live on,” he said, leaning on one of the unfinished new barrricades.
Alcazar, who moved to Chicago from Cuba when he was 11, said he's seen violence over the last two years at the Belmont encampment, directed at him at and other homeless men. But he said “the community” of longtime campers tries to make sure new transient men and women don’t cause trouble under the bridge.
“I put a stop to it when they don’t appreciate being here as a community,” Alcazar said. “We try to respect humans, as we are humans.”
According to Rene Haybach, director of The Law Project of the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, the city has “done this before, and they’ve done it in a number of places in the city.”
The Kennedy underpass at California Avenue north of Diversey Avenue includes fences to keep the homeless away from flat surfaces.
“I think the real question is, 'What is the city doing in terms of offering housing to people?'” she said. “Most of the street people we know want to be housed; they don’t want to live under underpasses.”
Outside his purple Crown Victoria, Alcazar agreed. He said he wants an apartment of his own, but his monthly Social Security checks inevitably go toward his car and phone bills.
“You’ve got very kind people under this bridge like me, who have something to give the world, but they won’t let us,” he said. “I don’t know what’s going to happen to them; they’ll sleep on the floor here, or something bad could happen.”
Meanwhile, another looming issue with the construction appears to be the height of the new cement platforms — about 5 feet high, the barriers create a tunnel that's potentially dangerous for pedestrians.
Pedestrians cannot be seen from the street and are blocked by the cement platforms on one side and a viaduct wall on the other, a situation that Colon said “was not the intent” when he approached the city and state last year.
Jae Miller, a spokeswoman for the Illinois Department of Transportation, said the project is being handled jointly by the state and city transportation departments.
Update: Homeless moved out. Click here.
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