AVONDALE — Another homeless encampment was destroyed in a fire over the weekend, adding to mounting concerns that residents of Chicago’s tent cities are increasingly at risk trying to survive without permanent shelter.
The fire broke out 5:30 p.m. Sunday at an encampment at California and Diversey avenues in Avondale, authorities said. No one was hurt, but some residents lost all of their belongings, Fire Department spokesman Larry Merritt said.
The cause is still under investigation, but it’s the latest fire to hit tent cities in Avondale and across the city.
There have been at least two fires at a tent city in Uptown in recent months. The area’s alderman said the fires caused propane gas tanks to explode. Another Avondale encampment at Belmont and Kedzie avenues suffered from at least two fires last year. The cause of those fires has not been determined.
“It is concerning that there’s been so many, so close together,” said Julie Dworkin, policy director for the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless.
While the fires haven’t been linked, Dworkin said the incidents “highlight how incredibly unsafe it is to have to live outside.”
“If it’s not a fire, it could be extremely cold temperatures or other kinds of violence perpetuated against homeless people living outside and not protected in any way. They’re not really different,” she said.
Sunday’s fire left Avondale residents feeling scared and without many essential belongings.
Resident Michael Kardenych said he was sleeping in his tent when a friend started yelling that a fire had engulfed some of their tents.
“It was, crazy, it was madness, you couldn’t see anything — there was smoke everywhere,” Kardenych said.
“It was so hot. … I could barely even stand right there,” he added, gesturing to the nearby fence. “Somebody wanted to kill us.”
Kardenych said they lost many belongings in the fire, including clothing, cases of water and a table for food. He said some of his stuff was spared, but the encampment’s other two other residents lost everything they had.
Authorities couldn’t say what caused the fire, but Kardenych said he believes someone set fire to his home out of anger. He said the incident stemmed from a feud with a nearby resident.
Whatever the cause, Dworkin said the city should be doing more to keep residents of homeless encampments safe and place them in permanent housing.
“Getting people permanently housed is the only way to ensure peoples’ safety,” she said.
In Uptown, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) is appealing to city leaders to clear the tent cities after recent fires caused propane tanks to explode. The Mayor’s Office is drafting 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.
But Dworkin said her organization doesn’t support any plan that displaces residents “without addressing the underlying issues” they’re facing.
At an unrelated press conference Monday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot said she did not know about Cappleman’s request and did not know it had been denied. She added that the city is committed to serving unhoused residents and ensuring they have safe, permanent housing, but said there are multiple reasons why some people are reluctant to leave encampments.
“When we think about this, we have to think holistically,” Lightfoot said. “We’re not just gonna wipe people’s belongings away. We’re not gonna throw away their tents. We’re gonna treat them with the decency and respect they deserve as our neighbors who are living in challenging circumstances.”
Lightfoot added: “We have exponentially expanded the amount of millions of dollars, tens of millions of dollars, that we’re putting into supportive housing and homelessness services.” The city in 2020 allocated $35 million to help people experiencing homelessness find housing.
Kardenych has lived on the streets for more than a decade, bouncing around to different encampments as he battled an addiction to heroin, he said. He said he hopes to leave the encampment for an apartment soon, especially after the fire.
“I can’t stand these under the bridge communities because stuff like this happens,” Kardenych said.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: