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City Fences Off Stewart School, Evicting Longtime Homeless Campers

By Josh McGhee | September 26, 2016 11:12am
 Officials erected a fence around Stewart School, a longtime homeless encampment, Monday morning.
Officials erected a fence around Stewart School, a longtime homeless encampment, Monday morning.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — A longtime homeless encampment around a shuttered elementary school in Uptown has been evicted, and its residents blocked from returning, as city workers Monday morning fenced off the property with the aid of police.

Homeless residents have lived at the "tent city" outside the shuttered Graeme Stewart School at 4525 N. Kenmore Ave., for months. They say they were warned Friday that the city would clear and fence the lot on Monday morning, nearly a year after the property was sold to a developer who plans to build a mixed-use residential and retail building there.

"Those residing in the west school lot were warned Friday of a cleaning of the lot by Chicago's Department of Streets and Sanitation scheduled for Monday ... and told they would have to move their belongings out during this time," according to a release from Tent City Voices Heard, a collective comprised of homeless residents of the encampment that speaks on behalf of the group.

 The Stewart School homeless encampment.
The Stewart School homeless encampment.
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A spokesman for the Department of Family and Support Services said residents were warned months in advance and again on Friday. Anything left behind at the school will be thrown in the trash, the spokesman said. 

"In the interest of their safety, DFSS has recently increased its outreach to individuals taking up shelter in this area to help them make alternative shelter arrangements in advance of this site soon becoming an active construction site,” the department said in a statement Monday.

"DFSS conducts regular outreach to engage all individuals experiencing homelessness around the city with services and shelter they need to maintain permanent housing once again," the statement said.

Bobby Williams said no one was to blame for his situation but himself, but he still wondered the benefit of continually pushing out people with nowhere else to go.

"We are out here because we're forced to be out here. ... Where do we find solace? We're not getting it in the streets," he said. "What do you want us to do, get off the planet?"

Tent City Voices Heard alleged the Stewart School cleanup and others like it are intended to push homeless residents out of the neighborhood.

"The city's 'cleanings' of encampment sites of the homeless is being greatly increased in Uptown to the point where they are seen as gratuitous and malicious, to serve no other purpose than to make life for the homeless more difficult to endure in hopes they would leave the areas of their accord and be 'voluntarily' displaced," the release said. 

Tent City Voices Heard claimed Monday that while the school building had been sold, the west lot of the property where most were camping is not part of the development plan. 

They also decried the lack of affordable housing included in the redevelopment, and said that many of the homeless people camped out at Stewart were "longtime area residents, some of whom worked for the school in the past or even attended the school for their own primary education."

Representatives for the group spoke at the scene Monday to decry the fencing.

One former Edgewater resident, Jerry Werderitch, 65, said he'd been camped at the school for two months, and called losing the space a "nightmare."

"It's a bad dream turning into a nightmare," Werderitch said of the eviction. Before the school, he was encamped at the Wilson Avenue viaduct under Lake Shore Drive, another popular "tent city" site, but he became ill there and lost his possessions when he was hospitalized. 

"I'm too old for this," said Werderitch, who said he lost his home to a bank repossession and has not been able to rent an apartment since.

Tent City Voices Heard said Monday that shelters are not a viable option, with most of Chicago's homeless shelters "at 95 [percent] capacity 'on any given night,'" according to the release. 

Homeless encampments in Uptown have reached a critical mass in recent years and have been a pressure point for the neighborhood.

Ald. James Cappleman (46th) has been an outspoken proponent of plans to get the homeless off of Uptown's streets. Area residents have been divided on the appropriate response to the issue.

"The site in front of Stewart School became a critical safety hazard as the developers that purchased the school building are moving forward with construction at this site," Cappleman said via email.

When he learned of the encampment at the school, he reached out to DFSS to ensure they would have access to services offered by the City and social service agencies. He will also continue to push the mayor and DFSS to work toward a Housing First model for those experiencing homelessness, he said.

"As winter approaches, I continue to be concerned about the safety of people experiencing homelessness living outside in our community. ... It is incredibly important that we, as a city, increase the amount of affordable housing for those on the verge of becoming homeless," Cappleman said.

Residents and their tents had been removed from the site by noon Monday, but many had no idea where they go from there.

"There's nowhere for us to go, but they're pushing us around like we don't even matter," said Delores Parker, who said she was born and raised in the neighborhood. "All we're asking for is a place to live and lay our heads down."

The Chicago Board of Education voted to close Stewart School in 2013 along with two other Uptown schools: Lyman Trumbull and Joseph Stockton. Student populations were consolidated, and Stewart's 260 children were transferred to Joseph Brennemann Elementary School.

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