A Letter in Response: For Housing and Against Displacement

Here is the text of our response letter addressing the arguments put out by other residents calling for the removal of homeless encampments. Copy and paste it into your email and send it to the email addresses listed at the end of it. Let’s show which voices in Uptown are greater in number:

To Mayor Emanuel and to whom it may concern,

Recently, a small group of outspoken residents expressed concern and explicit disdain over the homeless encampments existing under lakeshore drive here in the Uptown neighborhood. Among many things stated in their letter they expressed disingenuous worry over the supposed safety and well-being of those sleeping outside and requested such individuals be removed to “somewhere else”. Those who wrote the letter also claimed that the encampments are somehow an endangerment to themselves as residents. They demanded that supposed laws be enforced, that the homeless be cleared from the sidewalks and that the city should push a really destructive harmful way of going forward when handling our homeless neighbors. They also claimed or implied there’s an overconcentration of low-cost housing in the Uptown area, there’s more than enough shelters beds available for all of Chicago’s homeless sleeping outside and there’s an adequate amount of services that just need to step in more.

These residents and groups behind the letter are dead wrong on multiple fronts. They’re wrong on their stigmatizing fears and narrow vilification of our homeless neighbors. They’re wrong on the laws, which actually protect the homeless having a right to the public sidewalks. They’re wrong on there being an adequate amount of housing, services and shelter beds in the area for everyone sleeping outside. In reality, they offered no substantive long-term solutions to homelessness in their letter other than for general unspecific calls of removal that reflected a petty selfish “out of sight, out of mind” mentality plaguing the character of our neighborhood. As also residents and allies of Uptown, we found much of their letter to be lacking and counter to the altruistic inclusive diverse refuge nature for the dispossessed we believe our Uptown community has long advocated for and should continue to advocate for. ‘Uptown for everyone’ is the simple vision and aim we hope that city officials and agencies consider while interacting with the homeless population here. The only way the homeless should be removed is by their own accord, and adequate housing is their right.

Many of us who live in Uptown have not experienced the kind of fear and paranoia over safety these other residents are claiming come from the encampments. Daily, we walk by and speak to those sleeping under the viaducts. We have not experienced the kind of descriptions that were mentioned by the other letter being sent out. Of all the gang shootings in Uptown, not one has come from these encampments. Of all the homicides in the neighborhood during this past record-high year, not one has come from these homeless encampments. Of all the muggings in the neighborhood, not one has been documented to come from those under the viaducts. Needless to say, there really is a lacking in objective evidence that those sleeping under the viaducts are a threat to other members of the community as the complaining neighbors claim. Perhaps if safety is a concern, there are more urgent priorities that should be tended to rather than harassing the homeless? Moreover, removing the encampments without putting homeless folks in stable housing endangers their lives more not less. Forcing the homeless to go off as individuals, separated from their new communities and networks into less lit, less visible areas makes them more prone to robbery, battery and sexual violence. As a report provided by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty demonstrates, criminalizing and harassing the homeless to constantly move physically endangers such individuals to less safe areas, negatively impacts their stress and emotional mental health as well as makes it more difficult for service providers to keep track of such individuals and put them into stable housing. As a long term solution to homelessness, we urge you to end the criminalization and harassment of the homeless as a means to more effectively get them into stable housing.

Furthermore, the argument in the other letter that the law warrants the removal and eviction of the homeless under the viaducts is simply untrue. As long as there is space to walk through, the homeless have every legal right to be where they are. The Bryant agreement between the city and the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless clearly states that the homeless are legally protected under the viaducts. Moreover, the Illinois Homeless Bill of Rights also protects our homeless neighbors to be free from excessive harassment and criminalization in public spaces. Regardless of such legal protections though, we ask you to hear the words of Dr. King who rightly said in the era of legal segregation, “An unjust law is no law at all”. Laws used to criminalize the homeless for being homeless are simply unjust laws that should not be enforced. They run in contradiction to every faith, creed and democratic ideal. The law is in fact on our side, but real morality and human justice must rise up.

Another component that needs to be addressed in the increase to homelessness and how to respond is the cuts to mental healthcare. For years these community groups and anonymous blogs now complaining about the homeless under the viaducts remained silent on the cut backs to mental healthcare, substance abuse counseling, transitional housing programs and really the kind of funding that was keeping people out of homelessness in the first place. Perhaps it shows a lack of long-term concern for the homeless? That complaints only arose from them when it impacted only them? For example, not a single word has been publicized from The Beacon Block Club over the lack of mental healthcare in this country. Not a word from Uptown Update when services have had to close. Not a word from any of these groups when Alderman Cappleman voted to close half of the city’s mental health clinics. One solution that could curb the rising tide of homelessness in our city that we believe should be immediately taken is to re-open every mental health clinic that has been closed, restore every dollar of funding to these programs that has been lost over the decades and better yet aggressively expand more not less funding for all these programs dealing with mental healthcare and substance abuse counseling.

It is also undeniable that more low-cost housing within the immediate area is needed to curb the increase of homelessness. The closure of several low-cost SRO’s (Single Room Occupancies) played a huge role in the spike of people sleeping outside. These same groups and anonymous blogs who promoted the closure and gentrification of these needed housing options are now the same ones complaining the loudest about how people sleeping outside need to be removed. We find the disconnect simply astonishing. Buildings like the Hotel Chateau, The Lawrence House and the Norman Hotel provided over 1000 units of low-cost housing that was primarily used by people who were on the risk of being homeless or who were formerly homeless. These buildings were flipped into units with rents 2-3 times higher, all of which was celebrated by the areas block clubs and Uptown Update. The miracle today is that there aren’t 1000 people sleeping under the viaducts instead of the mere handfuls who are there. Despite claims in other letters, the neighborhood has no more units of subsidized housing than the thousands of units of condo housing. The argument that there is an overconcentration of low-cost housing in Uptown is based on a double standard when looking at the numbers of high-income condo housing in the area, which make up over 20% of the 46th ward. The need to replenish the 1000 units of low-cost SRO housing obviously exists in Uptown with scores of people sleeping outside. Through the use of Tifs and other government funding mechanisms- the ability is also there. Rather than subsidizing 700 units of luxury housing that isn’t needed with the Montrose Clarendon Tif, that money should be used instead to provide more low-cost housing options for those facing the risk of homelessness. Moreover as a way of actually saving city tax money on hospital expenses and jail expenses, the city should build enough low-cost housing to provide a housing first model. Such has been successfully implemented in other cities across the country that have both ended homelessness and saved millions of tax dollars by putting people into housing as a pre-condition before all other steps in getting the homeless into stable conditions.

While there are shelter beds in the city of Chicago, there are not enough for Chicago’s estimated 140,000 homeless individuals. Despite the claims of the letter demanding removal under the viaducts, every shelter bed could be filled but there would still be tens of thousands of people sleeping outside. This doesn’t count for the fact that there are stay limits in Chicago shelters as well and individuals can only sleep in a shelter for a certain amount of months. The letter also doesn’t consider that many shelters are gender-segregated and couples rightfully don’t want to be separated. Consequently many sleep outside together. The implication behind the argument put out in the other letter is very clearly about vilifying the homeless outside. The complaining residents are very blatantly trying to blame the homeless for the realities that people in many ways are forced to sleep outside of shelters.

The only way to provide a substantive long-term solution to the homelessness under the lakeshore drive viaducts is to provide low-cost housing and restore social service funding through all available means. As already argued in length, simply telling the homeless to move or criminalizing their existence are not solutions and in fact worsen the rising tide of dispossession and homelessness we’re already seeing. The other letter put out by block clubs and blogs does not represent our community or a viable way of moving forward. With so much wealth and power at your disposal, we implore you to aggressively provide more housing to people here in Uptown and across the city. THAT is our very simple demand.

Sincerely,
INSERT YOUR NAME AND ADDRESS

Email addresses to copy and paste into your message:
rahm.emanuel@cityofchicago.org, james@james46.org, harry@48thward.org, us.rep.schakowsky@mail.house.gov, steans@senatedem.illinois.gov, rep13greg@gregharris.org, michael.rendina@cityofchicago.org

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