Friday, April 15, 2022

The Homeless Encampments are a Public Safety Hazard

Aftermath of the March 22nd explosion
News arrived Thursday morning regarding the explosion and fire Wednesday afternoon in the park near Weiss Hospital (thanks to those who reported from the scene and sent videos).  

Like the horrible explosion and fire from two weeks ago -- and a similar explosion, fire and fatality in 2021 -- this most recent fire was started and then precipitated by the explosion of propane tanksTwelve propane tanks were found in total, although only two exploded in this case. Thank God.

If all twelve propane tanks had exploded, there would have surely been loss of life and injuries to the people who currently are living nearby, not to mention any passers-by and residents living in nearby buildings.

Although we try not to editorialize, the residents who contribute to Uptown Update think the time has come to say something more than just report

We hear consistent concerns about the viaducts and park encampments and demands for change daily, in comments to the blog, messages to our inbox, photos, and in discussions with fellow residents. The sentiment is both popular and clear: please someone do something about the situation.  

From our review of many years of emails and messages, here are some uncontroverted facts about the situation:

What is happening under the viaducts and in Lincoln Park is illegal, has been illegal, and will remain illegal. 

The viaducts at Montrose, Wilson and Lawrence are under the jurisdiction of the City of Chicago and the State of Illinois owing to the presence of DuSable Lake Shore Drive directly above.

 Lincoln Park is under the jurisdiction of the City and the Chicago Park District. 

As we understand it, there are up to 12 different laws being broken every day the homeless encampments stay in place (the Americans With Disabilities Act, Illinois statutes, City ordinances and Park District Code).

The blockage of all or part of the pedestrian and bike lanes under the viaducts is an ongoing violation of the Americans With Disabilities Act.

The City of Chicago and the State of Illinois have chosen not to enforce the law as written.

Every person under the viaducts has been offered shelter or housing, but has refused.

The City of Chicago rented an entire hotel on Michigan Avenue to house homeless persons in 2021 through last month. Every person who remained under the Uptown viaducts this winter refused repeated offers of sheltering in the Hotel Julian.

The citizens of Uptown are asked to comply with the law every day. The vast majority of us do. But the residents of the encampments, a group numbering less than 50 people, have mostly refused help, do not follow the law, and more importantly, are not being asked to.

For more than 10 years, we have received messages and complaints reporting open air drug use, open air sexual activity, garbage, objects and rotten food strewn across the ground in the viaducts and the park encampments. Of course, all of these activities are both in violation of the law and a threat to public health and safety, particularly during COVID. It's become routine to see bicyclists and pedestrians using the traffic lanes under the viaducts to avoid the chaos of the encampments, and we have been lucky to have no injuries so far. 

Smoke rising over Weiss after Wednesday's fire,
forwarded from a reader via the Citizen app
But the recent fires and explosions have taken an already bad situation to an entirely new level. What the recent explosions have made clear to us is that the continued existence of the encampments is, simply put, a public safety menace

To illustrate, after our initial concerns about injuries during the March explosion were met with good news that no one had been hurt, our thoughts turned to the what ifs. 

  • What if the explosion had happened on a Saturday midday with pedestrians
  • What if the explosion had led to a parent and baby being horribly burned or killed when their stroller was engulfed by flames?
  • What if more propane tanks had ignited, potentially wiping out the entire population of the encampment? 
  • What if the explosion had killed or injured a bicyclist, or a senior citizen out for a walk?
  • What if a larger explosion caused DuSable Lake Shore Drive to collapse, leading to deaths from cars plunging to the street level below? 
But for luck and the grace of God, none of those things happened. But they could have. 

There are now actual wooden structures in the pedestrian and bike lanes (ersatz "tiny homes") under DLSD, replacing tents. We don't want to imagine what would happen if those caught fire. And there are new double-wide tents on wood pallets. It's obvious that the entirety of the current situation is unsafe for everyone --  multiple flammable objects stored under a federal highway coupled with propane tanks.

char marks outside the viaduct showing
the intensity of the March 22nd explosion
As we all worked on this draft since Wednesday evening, we discussed on our Slack what a certain group of commenters are going to say in response to this post. Expect to see terms like "privileged," "rich," and "insensitive" thrown around. There will be broad appeals to social justice and accusations that we, or anyone opposed to the continued homeless encampments, are "Republicans" or "Trump supporters." 

But remember as you read the comments that these are accusations intended to attack the messenger in an attempt to distract from the message. In the end, we're fed up, the community is fed up, and we are going to speak our minds and give a voice to our readers, regardless of the response.

Our aldermen (Ald. Cappleman and Ald. Osterman) have told us repeatedly that they have little control over the situation, as it is the City's choice to ignore the laws on the books. We are not politicians. We can't effect change directly, and all we have is this soapbox to work with. 

But with the situation clearly out of hand and dangerous, we call on the City of Chicago and State of Illinois to apply the laws on the books equally and fairly and remove all people camped on public land. While this will necessarily lead to the end of the homeless encampments, it is the right thing to do for the community at large and for the people who are living in extremely dangerous conditions.  

We have questions, too: 

  • What does the Chicago Fire Department think about all of this? 
  • And should the City Inspector General weigh in on how they feel about having laws routinely ignored and selectively enforced? 
It would behoove all of us to have those answers, and we encourage our readers to ask.

The residents of Uptown are entitled to free, safe, and unencumbered access to and use of the viaducts, the parks, and DuSable Lakeshore Drive each and every day.  It's well beyond time to put a stop to the practice of subjugating the interests of the overwhelming majority of citizens and visitors to a small minority who refuse help and refuse housing.

-- UU

Update by Uptown Updater:

Carrying over my comments from Facebook to answer common questions:

With regard to offers of shelter, we've worked on this aspect of the story over several years, talking to people in government and social services and collecting information sent by citizens asking the same questions. While it is true that 'new' residents of the encampments may be outside without offers of shelter for a few days, the City and private social services go to the camps frequently and any homeless person is provided an offer within a week. EVERYONE in the encampments is contacted, offered immediate shelter, and encouraged to enter a 'wrap-around' service program. Most refuse, although there are plenty of good stories where people have 'graduated' from the viaducts to housing, full time jobs, etc. The current model is 'housing first,' where shelter or housing is the initial step, followed by services. Obviously, this requires people to accept housing as a first step. Many have resisted for years.

With regard to why people resist shelter and housing offers, substance use is far and away #1, coupled with requirements to start substance abuse counseling (although this is not universal). Curfew restrictions, requirements to attend meetings with social workers, requirements to engage in job training are also very common complaints. 

To answer others who think we are criticizing individuals, the pressing issue is the 3 known fires, one of them fatal. Homeless people need to follow the laws as we all do. The unsafe behaviors and unsanitary conditions are an additional hazard to both the homeless and the public. Uptown residents are entitled to use the viaducts and park without fear of being exposed to these risks. 


  1. About time. Been saying this for years.

  2. Thank you for a cautious, diplomatic, and very well thought out think piece.

    What can we, the residents of Uptown, do to help take care of this situation?

  3. 1000% agree! Cappleman and Osterman need to enforce the laws. Isn’t the part of their jobs?

  4. What can we do to help the situation?

  5. Two thoughts on the quoted text below. 1) The aldermen are powerless in this respect but would have time to work with an organized group. 2) So organize! If only ad hoc. Work with the aldermen to find out who to engage at the City and State levels. Surely there is an attorney resident of Uptown willing to serve pro bono as counsel to the group.

    "..Our aldermen (Ald. Cappleman and Ald. Osterman) have told us repeatedly that they have little control over the situation, as it is the City's choice to ignore the laws on the books. We are not politicians. We can't effect change directly, and all we have is this soapbox to work with....."

  6. How can a concerned resident push the city/state on this topic?

    1. It is the Park District Security Team's job to initiate getting the homeless out of the park area which runs from Marine Drive to the lakefront. They have no arrest powers so they have to call our local police to enforce the law. Park District Police complain that local police refuse to enforce the law. So the buck stops there. I don't care if Kim Foxx is an asshole, which they will respond. That is no excuse for police officers to refuse service to our community.

      The answer is to file a formal complaint against the Chicago Police Officer who refuses to respond to the call and the District Police Commander and Lieutenants who govern the local police. You can find out who got the call sent to them from police dispatch. Keep racking up complaints against those individual police officers so that their own work records are compromised and they will get the message. It worked 5 years ago and it will work again.

  7. I agree with the sentiments in this article, but given what has happened in the past when the Alderman attempted to address this,
    I don't see anything happening. The Fourth Estate is to blame as much as anyone else in this regard;
    the columnist from the local press (who lives in Oak Park, not Uptown) saw fit to vilify the Alderman when he tried to address this previously (thank you Mr Kass) was not helpful in that regard.
    This is somewhat like blaming the President for gas prices when he has little or no control over them. The mayor/city of Chicago and or state agencies will have to enforce existing laws and remove the homeless and make that stick, but given that an election is looming, unless someone dies or is injured, this will probably be forgotten in a few weeks.

  8. It's clear that there are as many different opinions on the subject of homelessness as there are 46th Ward residents, and I also have my own feelings about it. When I was a college student, I took in someone released from a mental health facility who had no place to stay and no family members to help him, and a few years later, I took in an 18 year old who was released from a psych facility for trying to kill his mother. Throughout my 20s and 30s, I've taken in 6 people into my apartment and/or Franciscan friary who were experiencing homelessness, and in 1988, I founded a homeless shelter for people with HIV. I've had social work jobs where I helped people experiencing chronic homelessness. It's safe to say I know more about homelessness than most elected officials. To say the issue is complex is putting it mildly. I also know that we should balance the rights of the community with the rights of those experiencing homelessness, and it's very easy for all sides to make mistakes along the way.

    My newsletter spoke of a webinar to discuss homelessness and what's being done to address it. I strongly encourage people to register for it and submit your own questions. Every community in the United States is struggling with this issue and it's only gotten worse with COVID. So the answers to come from all this won't be perfect, but that shouldn't stop us from trying to make it so.

    My newsletter will lead you to the registration for the webinar.

  9. Could not agree more. Thank you for posting, please keep advocating and pushing our government to enforce laws and do the right thing.

  10. You hopped onto that crucifix and nailed yourself to it on Wednesday? Customarily its just a weekend deal. Sunday brunch is at 11. Bring a dish, and know that martyrdom is no excuse to not be punctual.

    char marks outside the viaduct showing
    the intensity of the March 22nd explosion
    As we all worked on this draft since Wednesday evening, we discussed on our Slack what a certain group of commenters are going to say in response to this post. Expect to see terms like "privileged," "rich," and "insensitive" thrown around. There will be broad appeals to social justice and accusations that we, or anyone opposed to the continued homeless encampments, are "Republicans" or "Trump supporters."

  11. The situation is a complete joke, they need to go. I have generally liked the alderman here but his responses are pretty pathetic.

  12. Partition the sidewalk with bars. Arrest anyone camping in the park.

    1. Partitioning the sidewalk with bars or any other obstructions is a genius way to keep them from under the viaducts. But what about the parks?

    2. Or you could put huge planters on the sidewalk to keep them from pitching tents. There are huge planters in front of buildings downtown to repel crashes.

  13. This comment is from a reader who wants to remain anonymous. We are simply posting it for this person.

    "As a 25 year resident of Uptown, I have watched the homeless in our neighborhood become politicised. They now have attorneys and the weight of the Salvation Army, the Night Ministry, and many other social service groups behind them. In fact they present such a constituency, and wield such Clout, that our mayor and Alderman, are afraid to hold them to any of the standards that the rest of the citizens of Chicago have to comply with. The result? They are allowing dwellings to be built that are death traps.

    The most important of the many laws that the City is disregarding, are its own local ordinances found in the Chicago Building Code. Ordinances and laws that protect life safety, are specific regarding where people can live, what the structures should be made of, what sort of fire separations should protect their dwellings, and the sanitation requirements for dwellings that protect all of us. And sadly many of the provisions of the code were written in response to horrible fires and other disasters. These provisions in the code were paid for with the lives of many innocent people. An example of this was the Iroquois Theater fire - it was the impetus for the provisions on egress, and direction of door swings.

    For those naysayers who don't believe that the City enforces the building code selectively, I challenge you to call 311 for an inspection of your home or apartment. The building inspectors will not leave before they cite you on a multitude of code infractions. No batteries in your smoke detector? You could face a fine of $500. The homeless - they don't have any money to pay fines. Perhaps that's why they are not held to any of the standards that the rest of us have to comply with.

    Apparently, the Mayor and Alderman Cappelman think we are a revenue source for the building department. Meanwhile, they let the homeless burn."

    1. I won't deny it.... some excellent points were made in this post. Over the years, I've had countless meetings with various City departments to discuss this ongoing issue. After the explosion under the Lawrence viaduct on March 22, I called for another meeting with a number of different departments and the Mayor's Office to address safety concerns for those living under the viaducts, as well as for pedestrians, bicyclists, and drivers who also pass through. My newsletter that comes out next Thursday will provide details about the City's plan of action to address your concerns, along with the taped recording of the 46th Ward webinar that is focused on homelessness.

  14. By and large, homeless encampments are here to stay. You can advise the homeless, you can move the homeless, but cannot alter the addiction to street life once it is in play. Habitual homelessness is a condition which becomes a deep-seated mental health issue. Try as most big cities will, you simply cannot make homeless people lead a structured existence indoors. Some, of course, would LIKE to be off the streets. To most, though, it is a way of life they simply cannot give up.

  15. Time for a lawsuit. They are doing it in Phoenix.