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Ahead of DNC, city officials to close, cordon off one of Chicago’s largest, most visible homeless camps

As Chicago rolls out the red carpet for the Democratic National Convention next month, one of the city’s largest and most visible encampments for people without permanent homes is about to be shut down and fenced off for good.

The “tent city” sandwiched for years between the Dan Ryan expressway and the 1100 block of South Desplaines Street will be cleared out on Wednesday and permanently cordoned off, Brandie Knazze, commissioner of the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, told the Chicago Sun-Times.

Nearly all of the 22 residents living there recently in a few dozen blue and orange tents have agreed to move to a city-operated shelter of 60 beds at 100 E. Chestnut St., in the former Tremont Hotel. This year’s inaugural summer-shelter arrangement has been funded through Aug. 31, Knazze said, a little more than a week after the end of the convention expected to draw tens of thousands of Democratic leaders and supporters, as well as protesters.

Chicago and other political convention cities have a long history of moving homeless people away from prominent areas in sight of visiting conventioneers and news cameras. Ahead of the 1996 DNC, Mayor Richard M. Daley cleared out the last of “Skid Row” between the Loop and the site of the convention, the United Center.

Knazze said this isn’t that kind of sweep. Instead, city officials are moving the encampment’s residents because they figured federal authorities could require them to do so for security reasons right before the event. She didn’t want folks getting resettled in a scramble.

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Family and Support Services Commissioner Brandie Knazze, speaking at City Hall in January, told the Chicago Sun-Times, “What my plan is to make sure that we are thoughtful, that we are doing it in a trauma-informed way and that it’s not disruptive.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times file photo

“We do know that (the U.S. Department of) Homeland Security could come and ask, and that thoroughfare along Roosevelt Road is a place that we anticipate individuals who are staying at McCormick Place will be traveling to the United Center,” Knazze said in a recent interview. “What my plan is to make sure that we are thoughtful, that we are doing it in a trauma-informed way and that it’s not disruptive.”

Secret Service spokesman Joseph Biesk said security maps won’t be finalized until the end of the month. But preliminary maps that show potential secure zones around McCormick Place and the United Center don’t include the Desplaines encampment.

As the national spotlight arrives in Chicago, more people are experiencing homelessness, with 18,836 unhoused people in 2024, a jump from 6,139 people in 2023, according to the city’s annual point in time count. City officials attributed the increase in an annual report on homelessness to newly arrived immigrants seeking shelter.

But that’s not who has lived in the Desplaines encampment, according to city officials, who say they moved 18 camp residents to the former Gold Coast hotel and two more to a different shelter.

Chris, who did not want to be identified by his full name, said he’s lived at the encampment off of Desplaines Street for about two years after losing his job as a truck driver. He said he and others were told in late June they would receive help finding permanent housing. He said he’s waited a long time for help, but he remained skeptical.

“I’ll believe it when I see it,” he said.

A 57-year-old fellow resident who also declined to provide his name says it looks like the city is cleaning up ahead of its big party.

“They just want us to get out of here,” said the man, adding that he didn’t think President Joe Biden had done enough to help people like him struggling to find stable housing.

Rumors swirled in the encampment as some believed the city would provide them with hotel rooms for a month while others thought it could lead to a housing choice voucher.

Knazze said the new summer shelter program also was offered to residents living in encampments near 19th Place and Canalport Avenue, under the Ryan Expressway, and between Bryn Mawr and Foster Avenues near the North Shore Channel. However, those locations won’t be fenced off, she said — and none of the moves stem from a recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling that permits officials to enforce bans on people sleeping outside.

“This work is being done as part of our regular outreach efforts and strategy to support residents that are unhoused living in encampments,” said Andrea Chatman, Knazze’s deputy. “These residents have been targeted for these summer initiatives, not primarily because of DNC, but because … there are some health or safety issues happening in those locations.”

The goal is to make sure “that we are connecting folks with safe and supportive shelter and then ultimately, long term sustainable housing,” as Chatman says.

Before funding runs out for the Gold Coast shelter — and DFSS wouldn’t say how much the summer program costs — the department will host two events to help individuals at the shelter secure permanent housing. The department’s “rapid rehousing” program also speeds up the timeline to get people into homes, and provides up to two years of rental assistance and other supportive services, Knazze said.

But if a person staying at the hotel doesn’t find housing by Aug. 31, the city will move them to a different shelter space, Knazze said.

“We’re really trying to be thoughtful in how we engage individuals in locations where we know where there are individuals staying, that’s what we’ve done,” Knazze said. “We’ve talked about offering people in advance shelter and housing, and we will continue to do that.”

In Milwaukee, Capuchin Community Services is ramping up its services to unhoused people during the Republican National Convention next week in anticipation that many wouldn’t be able to access where they typically sleep or spend the day because of the event’s security perimeter, said the Rev. Mike Bertram, the ministry director.

“When events like this happen in some other cities, what happens to the poor,” Bertram said. “The city very often rounds all the poor up and basically deports them to some far out area where they receive no services just to simply get the people out of sight. And we said, you know, that’s not treating people humanely or with any amount of dignity and we need to do better for our people.”

The organization, part of the Capuchin Franciscan Province of St. Joseph, will continue to run its free evening meal program that borders the RNC’s security perimeter, Bertram said. They are also opening their overnight shelter — which typically only operates during the winter months — during the convention, and they are working with county officials to open a daytime cooling center.

Back on Desplaines Street, Chris said he was told about the move in June. But his main priority has been finding a job.

“I’m trying to make it (through) the day,” he said.



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