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As Tent City Eviction Looms, Homeless and Advocates Seek To Block It

By Josh McGhee | August 30, 2017 9:15am
 Housing advocates have filed an injunction to stop the rehab of the viaducts.
Housing advocates have filed an injunction to stop the rehab of the viaducts.
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DNAinfo/Josh McGhee

UPTOWN — Louis Jones is ready to work his way out of homelessness, but over the last 18 months he's made little progress.

He's been vocal about seeking help, and as the time to evacuate his tent under Wilson Avenue approaches, he's become fed up.

"It's not society as a whole, it's the the powers-that-be that don't give a damn," Jones said. "They need to stop acting like we want to be here. This is a viaduct. We're here because we don't have a choice."

A choice is exactly what housing advocates are hoping for with an injunction they filed in federal court Monday to stop the eviction of the tent city residents who live under viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence avenues, which the city aims to repair.

Uptown tent city organizers' initial lawsuit asks for the homeless to be able to return to the public area in front of the former Graeme Stewart School, where they were pushed out of in September of 2016. The property was sold to a developer who is building a mixed-use residential and retail building there, but plaintiff Andy Thayer said the eviction was "under the guise of a phony construction permit" because no construction occurred for another year.

The injunction seeks to halt the Sept. 18 eviction of the tent city residents. The group is seeking to force the city to provide permanent housing for all of the residents, give them a place with similar visibility, or allow them to return to the location outside the school, according to a news release.

"We believe that out of sight is not a solution to homelessness. Home is a solution to homelessness," said Alan Mills, executive director of Uptown People's Law Center, one of the lawyers representing the homelessness in the legal fight. "What they want is people to disappear."

In a statement after the 30-day eviction notice was posted, Chicago Department of Family and Support Services officials said that the city will work with the homeless and their advocates to ensure all Chicagoans have a place to live.

The department gave residents three shelters to go to once the viaduct work 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.

Northside Housing and Support Services is working very closely with family and support services and accepts direct referrals from its team, said Richard Ducatenzeiler, executive director of the program.

The program, which focuses on housing single men, has 72 beds and availability changes from day to day, he said. He would not say how many open spaces it currently has.

About 50 people live under the Lawrence and Wilson viaducts, including Joseph and Maria Murray.

"All we want is shelter; it's not too much to ask for. Me and my wife have been fighting this for two years," Joseph Murray said. "Every day it's getting closer and closer. Winter is coming, and where are these people supposed to go?"

While the options offered have space for women and men individually, room for couples is rare at many shelters.

Jeremy Nicholls of Cornerstone Community Outreach said with so many people still under the viaducts, the program is bound to quickly reach capacity. But Nicholls hopes the city will give it some leeway with regulations as it has in the past when the viaducts have been cleared.

Before a Mumford and Sons' concert at Cricket Hill in 2015, the city also cleared the viaducts.

"We took in 20 people that time, but the problem is no immediate housing," Nicholls said. "It took a year and a half to get them housed. Finding housing even when they make resources available still takes a really long time."

Those seeking shelter at Cornerstone will be housed on a first-come, first-served basis until the program runs out of space.

While Cornerstone is hoping other programs in the area will be able to step up, they haven't been able to plan much for the mass eviction as they're busy working with current clients, said executive director Sandy Ramsey.

The program is used to working on a tight schedule in times of need, she said, adding, "The truth is, it's probably what we do best."

"We live on a level of surface survival. We'll see what we can do, and we'll do it," said Ramsey.