LITTLE VILLAGE — With the school year around the corner, some parents are pressuring a city agency to find homes for people living in an encampment near a Little Village elementary school, helping to clear a passageway for students walking to and from campus.
A small group of parents and community members from William F. Finkl Academy demonstrated outside the city’s Department of Family and Support Services office Tuesday, saying they have tried for years to push local leaders to find housing for the people living under a viaduct on 23rd Street between Rockwell Street and Western Avenue.
With children returning to in-person learning Aug. 30, some fear for kids’ safety, saying they’ve seen some of the residents harass students in the past. One student said he’s also seen used needles on the ground.
“We want a safe, accessible walking path for our children,” parent Ana Mendoza said.
With signs stating, “reubicacion para acceso seguro,” or “relocation for safe access,” the group of parents and community members said it’s time for the city to find the residents a proper home, not simply displace them to another encampment. The school straddles the border of Pilsen and Little Village and serves students of each community.
Residents at the viaduct said they do not have anywhere to go if the city forces them to leave.
“We know the city has resources to help house people,” teaching assistant Maria Mata said. “We would like for these people to have a good place to live.”
A few residents told a Block Club reporter they are aware of the parents’ concerns. About a dozen people live in the encampment.
One person said they sympathize with the children and parents, and they have witnessed drug use and some people harassing passersby.
But another resident said she felt safe in the encampment.
“I’m not afraid of living here,” said Jill, 58, who has been there for a few weeks. “I don’t have any children, and I don’t know how I would feel about my children living next to homeless people — but I don’t think anyone here is a threat to the children.”
There are safety concerns among the residents, though, Jill said. Drivers often speed through the area, racing past pedestrians and the people in the encampment.
Jill said city officials recently cleared and power washed one side of the viaduct and relocated everyone to the southern side. If the area were cleared overnight, Jill said she wouldn’t have a place to go except another nearby viaduct.
“There are very limited options,” she said.
Asked about the relocation effort being advocated by parents, Jill said she was “absolutely” open to being housed.
“I would like to see the city spend less money cleaning the Bean in Millennium Park and caring more about people in need,” she said.
Finkl parents said they want a meeting with city officials to brainstorm a solution.
In a statement, a spokesperson for Mayor Lori Lightfoot said “providing shelter to all facing homelessness is one of the missions” of her office. The city has implemented the Expedited Housing Initiative, supported through federal funding, to find housing for people experiencing homelessness.
The program has provided housing to 877 households, with another 354 households in the process of of receiving housing, according the statement.
City officials are working to strike a balance between “being responsive to legitimate concerns about encampments and respecting the rights of people experiencing homelessness,” according to the Mayor’s Office. The city will continue to engage “residents for shelter, medical care and housing options while paying attention to the health and safety of the surrounding area,” according to the statement.
Juana Medina, organizer with the Pilsen Neighbors Community Council, said the group is trying to protect students and advocate for people to receive critical resources — especially in a pandemic that saw many Chicagoans facing housing insecurity.
“This is a problem that all of the city of Chicago is facing. With COVID-19, we saw the pandemic cause struggles around housing,” Medina said.
Whether people have documentation or not, “everyone deserves a home,” Medina said.
Subscribe to Block Club Chicago, an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom. Every dime we make funds reporting from Chicago’s neighborhoods.
Listen to “It’s All Good: A Block Club Chicago Podcast” here: