BACK OF THE YARDS — Ald. Raymond Lopez (15th) is defending the removal of a homeless encampment in Back of the Yards after a Facebook post publicizing the removal efforts was criticized as being “heartless” and promoting a “war on the homeless.”
On Monday, Ald. Lopez said he was improving the quality of life for his constituents by removing the people experiencing homelessness and their belongings from an industrial lot that borders his ward.
“We are not going to ignore this issue and have tax payers continue to pay for clean up and have local residents and property owners be forced to live with the mess and destruction that this encampment creates,” Lopez said.
For the past year, Lopez said residents had complained to his office about “trash” and “feces” surrounding the encampment. His office attempted to address the situation and connect the people living at the encampment with city “services so they can get themselves back on track,” but those efforts were “rebuffed,” Lopez said.
Last week, the alderman posted photos of the encampment removal effort, stating he took the “lead in disbanding the homeless encampment” at an industrial lot on Wolcott Avenue near 45th Street and Damen Avenue. The encampment sits in the 12th Ward and borders the 15th Ward.
“Nearly a dozen people have taken up illegal residence using abandoned trailers [and] discarded furniture. CPD and Streets & Sanitation issued warnings to vacate the premises,” Lopez wrote.
As part of the process, Lopez said city officials notified those living at the encampment ahead of the removal. The Department of Family Support Services was dispatched to provide services, and police were on hand while Streets and Sanitation removed items from the site, Lopez said.
Since April 17, the post has garnered more than 730 comments and 300 shares, with many people criticizing Lopez’s approach as lacking in compassion for people who are homeless. Among the comments, people described Lopez’ actions and the post as “shameful,” “soulless” and a “war on the homeless.”
Lopez shot back stating that “95 percent of the criticism came from people” living outside his ward and weren’t directly impacted by the encampment.
“Outsiders may disagree but they aren’t living with these issues. My residents are, and I will always defend my residents,” Lopez said. “I, for one, will not allow my neighborhoods to become a repository of privileged white guilt who want to make this their local cause … so they can feel like they have a mission and purpose in life.”
Lopez challenged his critics “to do something to end homelessness or assist the homeless.”
Ald. George Cardenas (12th), said he was not notified of the encampment removal, even though it was in his ward. Cardenas said he “completely disagreed with Lopez’s tactics” in dealing with the encampment, describing last week’s actions as “inhumane.”
Cardenas called for Lopez to take a more empathetic approach and engage organizations who are actively working with people experiencing homelessness.
“We have to be humane, more understanding and help,” Cardenas said. “Simply moving individuals someplace else is not a real solution.”
Cardenas also criticized Lopez for taking action in an area outside of his ward. “It’s not his business working in areas that jurisdictionally are not his,” Cardenas said.
Liliana Escarpita, a spokesman for Cardenas, said going into encampments and making it harder for individuals already experiencing difficulties” was the wrong approach.
“We want to come up with a different way of handling these issues, and shaming or attacking people who are experiencing homelessness is not the solution,” Escarpita said.
Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, which has previously sued the city for similar homeless encampment disbandments, denounced Lopez’s approach in Back of the Yards.
Diane O’Connell, attorney at Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, said such sweeps were “devastating” for vulnerable people experiencing homelessness.
“People often lose medication, important documents like birth certificates, social security cards, housing applications,” in these sweeps, O’Connell said. “They also lose sentimental items.”
Often times with these sweeps — which happen frequently in the spring and fall — people aren’t fully aware of the process and “even people present have things thrown away,” O’Connell said.
Having police present and threatening individuals with arrest “makes people feel unsafe” and only further fosters distrust, she said.
O’Connell called for the city to provide more housing, and more resources and engage individuals facing homelessness so these sweeps “wouldn’t be necessary.”
“These sweeps are harmful, they’re counterproductive and you cannot expect to build trust with people and offer services when [people connecting them to these services] come out during these types of sweeps,” O’Connell said. “It’s dehumanizing and wrong.”
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