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Uptown's Tent Cities Preparing To Evacuate Viaducts As 30-Day Notice Issued

By Josh McGhee | August 22, 2017 9:50am | Updated on August 23, 2017 8:20am
 Carol Aldape is one of about 25 people living under the Wilson Avenue viaduct which will close for construction in less than 30 days.
Carol Aldape is one of about 25 people living under the Wilson Avenue viaduct which will close for construction in less than 30 days.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — A group of homeless people who have been camping out under Uptown viaducts soon will have to find a new place to call home. 

On Friday, the "tent city" residents were served a 30-day notice to evacuate the viaducts at Lawrence and Wilson avenues. While those who call the viaduct home have been preparing for months, the orange pieces of paper taped to all sides of the bridges under Lake Shore Drive are stark warnings for those who have of yet to secure housing ahead of winter.

"I guess I'll go out on the lake and drown [since] I don't have a place to go," said Carol Aldape, one of about 25 people still living under the Wilson Avenue viaduct. "I'm 68. I can't work anymore."

The Lawrence Avenue viaduct and Wilson Avenue viaduct are both on the list of "most traveled structurally deficient bridges in Illinois." Both bridges were built in 1933 and are crossed about 100,000 times per day by motorists.

While the bridges have served as a last refuge for homeless folks in the neighborhood, residents have also complained about falling rocks and debris from the structure. Residents have known about the planned bridge rehab for months, but some have no idea what they'll do when they're uprooted from the neighborhood.

Those who call tent city home now have until 7 a.m. Sept. 18 to leave the viaducts, the notes said.

"This neighborhood ... I've been here over 30 years. My hospital is Weiss. I had open-heart surgery there. I have five doctors there. To go into another neighborhood and find five doctors you can trust and rely on is scary," Aldape said.

In December, as the neighborhood was preparing to lose a 72-bed shelter, Aldape was living comfortably in Uptown in an apartment that accepted her Section 8 payments. But days later, as the community learned the shelter had been saved, she learned the landlord would no longer be taking the payments.

Since then, she's lived under the viaducts and has had trouble securing housing. On Monday, she watched over "the Oasis," a post that collects food donated to those who choose to live out of sight between the viaducts and the beach.

"There's a lot of people who live in the forest out there, and we leave the food out here for them," she said. "Homelessness is not ending because we got a place."

Social service agencies, including the Department of Veteran Affairs and the city's Homeless Outreach and Prevention Team, visited the viaducts Monday informing the residents of their options.

There are three shelters residents can go to once the rehab begins: Northside Housing and Support Services, 941 W. Lawrence Ave.; Cornerstone Community Outreach, 4628 N. Clifton Ave., which has separate North Side facilities for men and women; and Pacific Garden Mission, 1458 S. Canal St.

In a statement, Department of Family and Support Services officials said that the city will work with community partners to ensure all Chicagoans have a place to call home. 

"The city strives to treat homeless residents with respect and to connect them with the programs and services they need to move from crisis to stability and will continue to do so during the construction of the Wilson and Lawrence bridge," agency officials said Monday.

Since family and support services' Homeless Pilot Program, which tried but failed to find permanent housing for 75 people living under the viaducts, was launched in April 2016, the Homeless Outreach and Prevention Team has visited the viaducts weekly, city officials said. 

At least twice, family and support services commissioner Lisa Morrison Butler and staff have met with residents and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless at City Hall to hear concerns, the agency said.

"There is no other area in Chicago where the city has devoted this level of resources to one specific location of homeless individuals," family and support services stated.

The homeless in the viaducts began losing faith in the pilot program once the 90-day period was over with it only successfully housing 18 people.

Paula Coleman and her husband arrived at the viaducts about a month after the pilot program started, which meant they didn't land on the original list to receive permanent housing, she said.

Still, the couple landed on a list to receive housing, but quickly lost faith, she said.

"It's not the pilot list, it's just another list. They say they're going to house us, but we've got less than a month," said Coleman, adding the couple had saved up some money and formulated their own plan to escape the cycle of homelessness.

Last year, Northside Housing and Support Services, now one of the city's alternative options, was on the verge of closing as the pilot program searched for temporary housing.

Meanwhile, a few blocks away, about 150 men are hoping they won't end up on the streets as the Wilson Men's Hotel prepares for a rehab.

"There's been a bunch of broken promises," said Victoria Valentino, who lived under Foster Street for eight years before finding housing on the South Side via the pilot program.

Valentino and her sister head to the North Side to shop and hang with their "family" under the viaducts twice a week, she said.

While they were happy to have a place to stay, even though its far from the place they once called home, Valentino still worries about their homeless friends.

"I want to know where they're going to stay," she said.

Signs posted on the viaducts warn the site will be closed down beginning at 7 a.m. on Sept. 18. [DNAinfo/Josh McGhee]