A propane tank exploded in a tent fire on lakefront park land in Uptown, according to Ald. James Cappleman. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

UPTOWN — Ald. James Cappleman (46th) was rebuffed in an effort to clear the tent encampments under DuSable Lake Shore Drive in Uptown after recent fires at the camps, he said.

Cappleman appealed to city leaders to clear the camps after at least two fires caused propane tanks to explode. One fire occurred under the Lawrence Avenue viaduct at DuSable Drive, where six residents were displaced and lost most of their possessions.

The other fire took place April 13 in the park property just west of DuSable Drive at Lawrence Avenue, in a tent that was unoccupied at the time, Cappleman and residents of the camps said.

Six people were displaced after a fire broke out in the encampment under the DuSable Lake Shore Drive underpass at Lawrence Avenue in Uptown. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

In his weekly newsletter, Cappleman said he convened a meeting of city departments, including Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office, to discuss safety in the encampments following the fires and propane explosions.

Cappleman said he supports moving the encampments from the viaducts at Wilson and Lawrence avenues to open park space, where some tents are already set up. His request to clear the viaduct encampments was turned down, but the city has a list of action items including a task force and examining possible new legislation, Cappleman wrote in his newsletter Thursday.

“I believe that this community has the right to stay together and to stay in Uptown but it is also our responsibility to ensure that those individuals and other neighbors remain safe,” Cappleman wrote. “My ask to have the viaducts cleared to make it safe for everyone has been denied and I fear it’s only a matter of time when an injury will lead to a needless death.”

Moving the camps from under the viaducts would lessen the safety risk of fires for both its residents, lakefront users and city infrastructure, Cappleman said in his newsletter.

But the move would bring unhoused Chicagoans directly into the elements and is just the latest effort to displace residents from the viaducts, residents said.

Rather than take up his request to clear the viaducts of residents, Cappleman said the the city will distribute fliers warning of the dangers of propane tanks, draft an ordinance that would fine those who give propane tanks to unhoused residents under viaducts and create a task force to explore ways to discourage the use of propane tanks or other potentially explosive material in encampments.

New tents, which include cots and velcro windows, sit on wooden crates in the Lawrence Avenue viaduct under DuSable Drive in Uptown. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

Cappleman said some of those measures would be ineffective. He said fliers are unlikely to discourage the use of propane tanks for heat and that it would be difficult for the city to monitor their use under viaducts.

Cappleman also said it “concerns me” that the city has not taken more action on the increasing prevalence of combustible items in viaduct encampments, including tiny homes, wood pallets and furniture.

“While I don’t agree with the city’s current approach to address this dangerous situation, I do respect the hard work of the Mayor’s Office and our city departments on this complicated matter,” Cappleman wrote in his newsletter.

Cappleman did not respond to requests to comment.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot said at an unrelated press conference Monday she wasn’t aware the city turned down the request to clear the viaducts. Lightfoot said she supports getting every Chicagoan into housing and doing so humanely.

“We’re not gonna throw away their tents,” she said. “We’re gonna treat them with the decency and respect they deserve as our neighbors who are living in challenging circumstances.”

Residents of Uptown’s tent city have faced eviction from the viaducts before.

In 2017, its residents were forced into the adjacent park land after being given a 30-day notice due to construction of the DuSable Drive bridges. Residents protested the move by marching on the drive and filing a lawsuit against the city.

Most recently, a 2019 clean-up sweep of the tent city renewed concerns about displacement, they said at the time.

The prevalence of tiny homes and tents on wooden pallets makes viaduct encampments more suseptible for dangerous fires, according to Ald. James Cappleman (46th). Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

Unhoused residents have taken to the viaducts in Uptown because of the shelter they provide from weather elements and because they allow a place to store items. Many residents over the years have said they prefer living in the tent city over staying in shelters or other interim housing.

City crews performed a cleanup at the Wilson Avenue viaduct encampment Thursday, three residents said. Some items — including a wood pallet used to walk over a muddy area — were tossed, they said.

The efforts to move them from the viaducts is unfair because the fires were started by two people while the others have done no wrong, the three men said. The fires also did not involve or impact the residents of the Wilson Avenue viaduct, who would be unfairly punished if they were forced out, they said.

“It’s clean down here,” said David, who asked his last name not be used. “We’re peaceful. This is public property. The alderman doesn’t own this.”

Some recent efforts to find housing for the Uptown tent city residents have been successful.

The city’s Department of Family and Support Services has performed at least five “accelerated moving events” at the Uptown tent cities since last year, Chandra Libby, director of homeless outreach for the agency, said at a recent town hall on homelessness hosted by the 46th Ward office.

Thirty residents of the tent city were placed in housing from those events in 2021, Libby said. Two more moving events were held this year, but all the remaining residents declined housing, she said.

The accelerated moving events is one of the new initiatives in the city’s effort to fight homelessness. Such efforts have been successful at Chinatown and Rogers Park encampments.

Other homeless intervention services are underway and are receiving a boost from federal stimulus funding, city officials said at the town hall.

“People have opinions on all sides of this issue,” Cappleman said at the town hall. “It’s extraordinarily complex. … We continue to explore for answers. With a lot of work, we’re going to find them.”

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