Andy Robledo is replacing piles of blankets and keeping people warm, "one tent at a time." Credit: Alejandro Reyes

WEST LOOP — A Pilsen man providing tents to people experiencing homelessness throughout Chicago has faced an obstacle, he says: city leaders.

For about a year, Andy Robledo has driven around Chicago in his 1974 blue Ford pick-up truck, giving out more than 70 orange ice fishing tents to people experiencing homelessness.

The tents, which cost $350, retain heat and allow people to live at their encampments year-round, Robledo said.

That’s led to complaints from neighbors and backlash from city officials — “only now that I’ve started replacing tents Downtown, too,” Robledo said last week.

The city placed tags on the tents near Lake and Clinton streets in West Loop, notifying residents city crews may return Thursday to potentially discard them.

Robledo and supporters, some of whom pitched in to buy the tents, will stage a demonstration 8 a.m. Thursday near Lake and Clinton streets to try to stop city crews from throwing the tents away.

The notices are “part of the regular weekly cleaning events that occur in the central business district,” and no one will be relocated, city spokesperson Joe Dutra said. But Robledo said his tents have been trashed in the past.

Winter is coming and “people need housing right now,” Robledo said.

“It’s easy to write citations, it’s harder to find real solutions. Lori can come tear the tents down, but she better have apartments ready,” Robledo said.

A city notice is ripped off one of the orange ice fishing tents. Credit: Alejandro Reyes

Homelessness in Chicago has spiked since the pandemic and persists as a public health “crisis,” said Doug Schenkelberg, executive director of the Chicago Coalition For The Homeless. The organization estimates homelessness increased 12 percent in 2020, affecting more than 65,000 people citywide.

Protestors pitched tents inside City Hall in October, urging Mayor Lori Lightfoot to put more money aside in her 2023 budget to combat the issue. The Bring Chicago Home coalition proposed a one-time tax on luxury property sales to create thousands of affordable homes.

The city has spent just a fraction of a promised $1.2 billion in federal relief funds under the Chicago Recovery Plan, with many of those funds earmarked to help unhoused Chicagoans, boost affordable housing and strengthen the city’s safety net programs, according to WTTW.

The city will fulfill spending under the recovery plan moving forward, Dutra said.

About $28 million next year will help house 800 people and keep another 1,000 in housing already provided, Dutra said. More than $100 million will go to renovate shelters, add beds and support 220 new units of permanent housing with social services, he said.

“Housing is the ultimate goal and pathway out of homelessness,” Dutra said. “It is not illegal to be homeless in the city of Chicago, and Department of Family and Support Services keeps the rights of these individuals top of mind while balancing safety and hygiene needs of the entire community.”

Rows of orange tents will people warm this winter at encampments across the city. Credit: Alejandro Reyes

Robledo, a former salesman who is recovering from alcoholism, said he’s “just a guy” who sees himself in people who are struggling.

He quit drinking three years ago and found himself “with time for hobbies,” he said. He bought a Ford truck, like his grandfather had, and started selling plants. The business, Plants Delivered Chicago, was a hit.

One day, someone broke into the truck and stole only a blanket, Robledo said.

“That hit me hard,” Robledo said. “So whenever I drove past someone, I would help them.”

Robledo raised money last year to send people in Fireman’s Park, Tent City and Canalport to a luxury hotel on the Mag Mile for two weeks during a frigid stretch of snowstorms, he said. He started building ice fishing tents so people “could go back to at least something better,” he said.

Robledo is doing what he can to “buy people an extra day” and keep them warm, he said. About half of the people he helps are on wait lists for city-supported housing or shelters, while others don’t have documentation for eligibility, he said.

“These wait lists may as well be death row lists with the winter that’s coming,” Robledo said. “Out of all the issues we face, this has the clearest and easiest solution. Get people into houses and give them a chance to survive.”

Andy Robledo delivers plants and orange tents his vintage Ford pick-up truck. Credit: Andy Robledo

Robledo’s new group, Feeding People Through Plants, aims to provide meals five days a week to people experiencing homelessness.

“And I’ll just keep replacing one tent at a time,” Robledo said. “In the affluent neighborhoods, people see the bright tents and freak out, but they don’t see that there are faces inside them.”

Robledo has helped others get clean and found six people permanent places to live, he said. He’s given them each a house plant.

“You can’t force anyone to get help,” Robledo said. “But we can inspire them to walk that road when they’re ready.”

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