DOWNTOWN — Ald. Bill Conway (34th) is accusing Mayor Brandon Johnson’s office of refusing to help him resolve issues around tent encampments in his ward after he did not support two of the mayor’s key proposals in City Council last month.
The mayor said the situation is being misunderstood.
At the same time, another key Conway proposal to boost safety around a women’s clinic was unexpectedly delayed amid the public squabble.
Conway, who campaigned heavily on public safety, said he’s been relentlessly trying to address safety concerns regarding several homeless encampments under viaducts in the 34th Ward.
Conway’s staff, in conjunction with police and other city agencies, have teamed up weekly to remove things like drug packets, guns, abandoned tents and over 20 propane tanks, the alderman said.
The city’s Department of Family and Support Services offered rehousing support to people living under the viaducts, which some people had accepted, Conway said.
Despite “overdoses, armed robberies and two shootings” occurring in the immediate areas, the city agencies could not do anything more beyond what they were already doing, Conway said.
That’s when Conway sought help from City Hall, he said.
In conversations in early October, Conway was told by Jason Lee, a top mayoral aide, he would have to back two of Johnson’s key progressive initiatives if he wanted help on the encampment issues, the alderman said.
Those two initiatives were the Bring Chicago Home and the One Fair Wage ordinances, according to the Tribune, which first reported the story.
In a follow-up conversation, Lee reiterated his request for support from Conway, Conway told the Tribune. Although removing the encampments would “raise hell” with progressive allies, Lee said Conway’s vote would give City Hall “all the ammunition we need to justify why this is a critical intervention,” Conway told the Tribune.
“It is obviously inappropriate to make a public safety response conditional. … The part that’s really upsetting is this isn’t really even about me. The Mayor’s Office has chosen to punish the residents of the 34th Ward,” Conway told Block Club.
Ultimately, Conway voted against the Bring Chicago Home initiative and was absent from the One Fair Wage vote. He said he was planning to vote no on the wage legislation before the conversation with Lee. Both ordinances passed City Council in October.
After that, the Mayor’s Office dropped its offers to help Conway with the encampment, he said.
Conway reported the incident to the city’s Office of Inspector General, calling the political horse trading “abhorrent and unethical” in an emailed newsletter.
“I have supported this administration’s efforts at times, and when we disagree, I’ve always been willing to have a conversation and find common ground. But I will not bargain with public safety,” Conway wrote.
A representative from the city’s social services department did not respond to a request for comment. Another city representative confirmed streets and sanitation workers have removed propane tanks from encampments but did not directly answer if they’ve done so in the 34th Ward.
“The city’s top priority is keeping all of Chicago’s residents safe, including those experiencing homelessness. Out of an abundance of caution and due to public safety concerns arising from the improper use and unattended operation of propane tanks, these objects are often removed from these sites,” the spokesperson said in a statement.
Lee defended his deal to the Tribune, saying Conway demonstrating a commitment to progressive values would have helped neutralize criticism the alderman might face for removing the encampments. Homelessness advocates have long criticized the city for any sort of encampment sweeps that effectively displace vulnerable neighbors.
At a news conference Wednesday afternoon, Johnson said Conway mischaracterized the situation.
“I am not necessarily privy to every single conversation that happens throughout the city of Chicago. Now, if you’re asking me do I apologize for my administration advocating for working people and making sure that we put forward solutions to deal with the unhoused in this city? I’m not going to apologize for that,” Johnson said.
Asked again by reporters about whether the situation was inappropriate, Johnson doubled down.
“There’s been a lot of mischaracterization of conversations all over the city,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s my senior adviser or whether it’s Ald. Vasquez or anyone else who has been pushing for real support around the unhoused, that is what this has always been about. And again, I’m not going to apologize for doing right by the people of Chicago.”
The Downtown alderman remains positive he will be able to work with the Mayor’s Office on future issues and initiatives despite his most recent experience. Conway pointed to his vote Wednesday in favor of Johnson’s first budget as evidence of that.
“I am always ready to work with the fifth floor in the Mayor’s Office on anything as appropriate,” Conway said.
‘Quiet Zone’ Around Downtown Women’s Clinic Stalls
Another key issue in Conway’s ward hit a speed bump this week as his public comments swirled about the clash with Johnson’s office.
On Wednesday, a planned vote on an ordinance that would have established a quiet zone around a women’s clinic Downtown was delayed after the city’s top attorney asked Conway to postpone it.
Family Planning Associates, 615 W. Washington Blvd., has regularly seen up to 20 anti-abortion protesters every Saturday morning. In July, the clinic had more than five times that number, with several of the protesters rushing at patients, forcibly trying to hand out religious pamphlets and using a loudspeaker which could be heard from inside the clinic.
Following numerous complaints from neighbors and clinic staff, Conway introduced an ordinance looking to establish a quiet zone on the streets surrounding the clinic. It was widely supported in a committee vote Monday.
Conway told Block Club it would be a “leap” to assume the delay was tied to his comments about the quid pro quo, but he said city law officials abruptly asked him to hold the ordinance right before he spoke on it in Wednesday’s council meeting.
“I was literally about to rise to speak to answer all these questions. And that’s when the deputy corporation counsel said … [they] want to hold this. I have not gotten any firsthand reason why that is,” Conway said.
Conway’s proposed ordinance comes after an escalation in anti-abortion activity outside the clinic.
A group of protesters from Metro Praise International had regularly started singing worship songs or prayers outside Family Planning Associates as early as 7:30 a.m., the volume amplified by portable speakers. At times, the speakers can be heard within a block in any direction.
Chicago’s Bubble Ordinance states it is illegal to be within 8 feet of someone who is within a 50-foot radius from the entrance of a medical facility in order to pass out unwanted literature, signs or engage in oral protest, education or counseling.
Family Planning Associates has argued the bubble ordinance is not good enough as the use of loudspeakers from recent protests negatively impacts their patients’ experience.
Allison Cowett, medical director at Family Planning Associates, told members of the Committee on Public Safety “just this past Saturday, 300 demonstrators” protested in front of the clinic with various amplified sound devices.
“It impedes the peace of mind of our patients entering the clinic and waiting for their appointments in our reception area. It interferes with communication between patients and their providers. It impinges on the focus of staffers doing medical procedures and administrative tasks. We simply cannot hear each other speak inside the medical facility,” Cowett said Monday.
Conway’s proposal would add the streets surrounding the clinic to existing city code, which already has quiet zones established on the streets surrounding Northwestern Hospital and Lurie Children’s Hospital in Streeterville.
Streets included in the Conway’s proposal:
- West Washington Boulevard between North Des Plaines Street and the easternmost off ramp from the Kennedy Expressway.
- North Des Plaines Street between West Court Place and West Madison Street.
- West Warren Avenue between North Des Plaines Street and the easternmost off ramp from the Kennedy Expressway
People who violate the new rule could face a fine of $300 for a first offense and up to $1,000 for a third or subsequent offense within a one-year period, according to the city’s municipal code.
Lena Shapiro, director of the First Amendment Clinic at the University of Illinois College of Law, previously told Block Club protesters are likely to argue a noise-sensitive zone limits free speech, but if the zone remains content-neutral it could be successful.
“I think as long as it’s articulated that the legitimate government interest is preserving the peace of the neighborhood, that’s a valid restriction,” Shapiro previously said.
“The regulation has to give those that are protesting outside the clinic a right to be there. … But again, that certainly doesn’t mean that they’re entitled to do it with a bullhorn. That doesn’t mean that they’re allowed to threaten or intimidate patients inside either. So, I think that’s probably where it’s hard to balance.”
Chicago’s bubble ordinance was last challenged in 2016 when a group of anti-abortion and “sidewalk counselors” filed a federal lawsuit claiming the ordinance was content-based. In 2019, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the lawsuit, citing a 2000 Supreme Court decision, which upheld a nearly identical Colorado law.
Listen to the Block Club Chicago podcast: