UPTOWN — A fire in the tent city under DuSable Lake Shore Drive in Uptown Monday caused no injuries but has unsettled residents who fear the recent fires at encampments will be used to force them out.
The fire broke out just before 6 p.m. Monday in the Lawrence Avenue viaduct under DuSable Drive, the site of a longstanding tent encampment, police said.
It is the third fire to hit an Uptown tent city this year, including two that have been sparked in the Lawrence Avenue viaduct.
The fire on Monday destroyed two tents and a tiny wooden house that were used as shelter for residents of the encampment, said Tom Gordon, the longtime leader of the Uptown tent city.
Nobody was in the tents when the fire broke out. Firefighters helped Gordon rescue two dogs and a cat that live with their owners in tents near the fire, he said. The pets were also uninjured.
Chicago Police investigators responded to the fire and determined it was not arson but rather caused by an “unknown incendiary device,” said Kellie Bartoli, spokesperson for the department.
Gordon said the fire was not sparked by a resident of the encampment. He suspects it was started on purpose by someone else. Only three residents of the camp were present when the fire was spotted, he said.
The residents whose tents were damaged will be put up in other tents under the viaduct, Gordon said.
“The fire department was here quick,” he said. “Nobody was in the tents. We’re very careful with everything we use down here.”
The tent city fires have caused Ald. James Cappleman (46th) to ask the city to relocate the encampments from under viaducts to open park land.
So far, that effort has been rebuked by the city. Residents of the tent city, meanwhile, said they will remain until the city offers better options for permanent housing.
In late March, six residents of the Lawrence Avenue tent city were displaced after a fire allegedly involving propane tanks broke out under the viaduct.
A second 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.
No one has been injured in the fires, which have not been started by residents of the encampment, residents said.
Cappleman and some neighbors, however, have said the fires are an increasing danger to the camp residents, people traveling Lawrence Avenue to get to the lakefront and those driving on DuSable Drive. The addition of wooden houses and tents on wood bases makes the situation more dangerous, Cappleman has said.
After the second fire, Cappleman asked the city to relocate the tents to adjacent park land. City officials turned down his request but Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office is working to address the issue, he said.
In response to the latest fire, Cappleman is continuing to ask the city to use “evidence-based, best practices that [have] a compassionate approach to addressing encampments while also focusing on producing results of removing encampments from areas that can prove to be dangerous to both those experiencing homelessness and other residents in the area,” said Maggie Gaecke, Cappleman’s chief of staff.
“We are still asking that residents in our community contact the mayor’s office to express any concerns they may have about the use of propane tanks and combustible wooden structures kept under the viaducts,” Gaecke said.
Lightfoot’s office is said to be considering actions including forming a task force to look at the issue of incendiary devices like propane tanks in tent cities and considering an ordinance that would fine those giving propane to encampment residents, Cappleman previously said.
Lightfoot’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment Tuesday.
The Chicago Department of Transportation is assessing the damage to the Lawrence Avenue viaduct following the latest fire, Gaecke said.
The city is cleaning up remaining residue from the fire on Friday, according to flyers posted at the encampment.
Neighbors of the Uptown tent city said they’re worried the fires will be used as pretext to move them from their years-long encampment.
Gordon and other residents said the fires have not involved exploding propane tanks, in contrast to official’s claims about the fires.
Heating devices are necessary to keep warm during winter and are used safely by residents, they said.
“If there was a [propane] explosion down here, we’d all be dead,” said Rose, a resident of the encampment. “We have rules down here. No. 1 is ‘no fires.'”
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 have said.
Residents of the tent cities said they take to the viaducts for shelter from the elements. They are committed to doing so until adequate housing is offered, they said.
“Rain, wind, it tears up the tents,” Gordon said. “I’m not moving my tents. Not going to happen.”
City officials said all the residents have been offered housing, and that there have been some successes on that front recently.
Thirty residents of the tent city were placed in housing following “accelerated moving events” in 2021, Chandra Libby, director of homeless outreach for the city’s Department of Family and Support Services, said at a recent Uptown community meeting.
Two more moving events were held this year, but all the remaining residents declined housing, she said.
Tent city residents have said that some of the housing offered by the city is hardly safer or more stable than the viaducts. Efforts to move the camps or restrict uses of heating devices will make it harder for the residents to survive, they said.
“How are people supposed to stay alive?” Rose said. “If you don’t get us housing, you can leave us alone.”
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