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Uptown, Edgewater, Rogers Park

Uptown Tent Camp Moved So City Can Repair Viaduct After Fires, But Residents Say ‘We’re Going Back’

Tent city residents willingly relocated to nearby parkland and have been told they can return to the viaducts once work is finished, officials and residents said.

City crews power wash and paint the Lawrence Avenue viaduct in Uptown following fires in the viaduct's tent encampment.
Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
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UPTOWN — Residents of a tent encampment under a DuSable Lake Shore Drive viaduct in Uptown have moved as the city fixes the area, which has been damaged by fires.

The residents left the Lawrence Avenue viaduct Tuesday, when crews with the Chicago Department of Transportation started cleaning up and repairing the infrastructure after two fires at the encampment.

Tent city residents willingly relocated to nearby parkland and have been told they can return to the viaducts once work is finished, officials and residents said. The residents plan to do just that.

“Let them do it,” said Tom Gordon, the leader of the viaduct tent city. “When they’re done, we’re going back. They don’t got a choice.”

After previously cleaning up the debris following two fires that destroyed tents and displaced residents, city crews began power washing and spray painting the Lawrence Avenue viaduct this week, said CDOT spokesperson Erica Schroeder.

Crews are also repairing and replacing lights and electrical infrastructure damaged in the fire, Schroeder said. The work is expected to be completed next week.

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
Tom Gordon inspects the remnants of a fire that broke out in the encampment in the Lawrence Avenue DuSable Drive viaduct, where Gordon and others live., on June 7, 2022.

The city’s transit agency has agreed to repair and repaint the viaduct if there are any future fires at the encampment, Ald. James Cappleman (46th) said in an email to constituents.

The Department of Family and Support Services continues to work with the residents to offer housing, Cappleman said. Those who don’t accept the housing offers will be allowed to return to the viaduct, he said.

There are about 18 residents of the Lawrence and Wilson avenue viaducts in Uptown, Gordon said. Since being relocated Tuesday, three residents of the camp and one pet dog have taken the city up on offers to move to motels, Gordon said.

There are at least two others who would go to motels and are waiting for the city to return and facilitate the move, he said.

“I have two people, with dogs, that want to go, but [the city] hasn’t come back,” he said.

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
A tiny wooden home has been relocated from a viaduct under Du Sable Lake Shore Drive in Uptown.

The most recent viaduct fire took place June 6, when an “unknown incendiary device” caught fire and destroyed two tents and a tiny wooden house, according to residents and police. The residents who lost their belongings were put up in other tents.

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.

Another fire took place April 13 in the park property just west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive at Lawrence Avenue, in a tent that was unoccupied at the time.

No one has been injured in the fires. Residents of the camps have feared the fires will be used as a reason to evict them from their years-long home near the lakefront.

Cappleman and some neighbors have said the fires are an increasing danger to the camp residents, people traveling Lawrence Avenue to get to the lakefront and drivers on DuSable Lake Shore 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 residents’ tents to adjacent parkland. City officials turned down his request, but Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s office is working to address the issue, he said.

Lightfoot’s office is considering 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.

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.

Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago
City crews power wash and paint the Lawrence Avenue viaduct in Uptown following fires in the viaduct’s tent encampment.

Gordon and some of the camp residents chose a shady spot west of DuSable Lake Shore Drive for their temporary home. Most of their possessions have moved with them, including tents, dog crates and overflow items. A good Samaritan brought by food, including a box of apples, after the camp was relocated, residents said.

Gordon and other camp residents said they declined the city’s offer for housing.

Some of the residents said being brought to motels often strands them in parts of the city they don’t know. Shelters can be just as unsafe as sleeping in the park, with plenty more restrictions, they said.

Plus, Gordon said he has to look over the camp. He works with the Park District on removing tents and belongings that have been abandoned, he said.

“I’ve got a camp to watch,” Gordon said. “People here don’t want shelter; they want housing.”

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