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Being Homeless In Chicago Means No Potted Plants

Updated: Jan 27, 2019

The Wilson Avenue viaduct of Lower Wacker Drive has long been a gathering place for Chicago’s homeless.  Underneath the bustling parts of the loop, Lower Wacker is close to the heart of the city,  sheltered from the elements, and out of sight of anyone likely to call the police with a complaint.

As winter approaches, though, the City has started distributing a memo to people living under the Drive about what items are allowed, and what is banned.  Yesterday, DNAinfo had fun reporting on the list – both in what is allowed (2 pairs of shoes, two coats, three bags or suitcases, one sleeping bag and up to five blankets per person, until Winter when the number of sleeping bags and blankets can double), and also in what is prohibited (tents, mattresses, appliance boxes, shopping carts, couches, fire pits, and potted plants).”

Although it’s easy to tell the story as an example of a heartless city government picking on an already downtrodden population, a closer read shows the policy is one that took a lot of viewpoints into consideration.  The “Off-Street Cleaning Procedure” (finalized in January of this year, after negotiations with the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless) actually outlines a variety of protocols that show the city is taking great care to balance the needs of the homeless while carrying out street cleaning procedures.

Rather than simply making it illegal for individuals to live on lower Wacker (ticketing them or throwing them in jail), the flyer (as photographed on DNAinfo) shows a number of ways that the city recognizes the homeless community, and is trying to work with them:

  • While off-street cleanings of the covered areas will be completed on a weekly or monthly basis, the City will post a sign announcing the cleaning with at least 24 hours notice.

  • During the cleaning, the city will “generally not remove any portable personal possessions” if they are attended by their owner or another person on behalf of the owner.

  • If there are items left unattended, or fall outside the list of allowed items, the City will provide a notice prior to discarding it – affixing a sticker to the item with a date by which the item must be removed or attended.

  • The City will not discard items of special value, such as important personal documents, medications, eyeglasses or money.

  • When “deep cleanings” involving a power washer occur, the City may require the homeless to move their property temporarily to a location at least 50 feet from the area being cleaned (but presumably can return as soon as the cleaning is completed)

With an estimated 125,848 Chicagoans experiencing homelessness during the 2014-15 school year, but only 14,427 beds in emergency shelters, transitional housing, and permanent supportive housing, there are many Chicagoans who have nowhere to live but the street.  Given that many don’t want to see homeless out on the street or in the alley behind their homes, Lower Wacker has become a place where it makes sense to not enforce public loitering laws – creating a homeless sanctuary instead.

So, as I read the procedures in the flyer, it is clear to me that the City has thought about the needs of these – technically lawbreaking – Chicagoans, and attempted to create a way forward that balances their needs in the process.

How different this is than the typical Chicagoan who – seeing a homeless person on the street – avoid making eye contact, pretend they don’t see the person or their need, or have a knee-jerk “make them go somewhere else that’s not in my backyard” mentality?  In this procedure, the city recognizes the existence of the homeless – while many Chicagoans would instead pretend that they just don’t exist.

Is Lower Wacker the best solution for the City’s issues of hunger and homelessness?  Of course not.  It would be great to find a way to treat all the mental illness, substance abuse and economic challenges that have led Chicagoans to the street without enough resource to support their basic functional needs. 

But to me, this procedure indicates a City government that is looking for ways to really understand the needs and issues facing our homeless, and create solutions that work for all involved.

It’s an understanding I hope to gain more of in my own work with hunger and homelessness in the coming year.  In January, I plan to spend a night being homeless myself –identifying the challenges and resources that can help an individual survive a cold and snowy Chicago night by experiencing the issue firsthand.

In doing so, I’ll be sleeping outdoors on January 22nd (a generally snowy day with average temperatures of 16 degrees), raising money for the 530 Fullerton Foundation –which exists to connect Chicago’s most vulnerable with the resources they need to achieve a better life.  And I’m asking everyone I can for support in that project – by sharing what they can via the fundraising website here.

But I’m curious to hear what you think.  What is the best way to balance the competing needs of homelessness in Chicago and other cities?  How to balance the legal code with the fact that it exists? How to balance the existence of homeless in a city where people don’t want to see or engage them? How to help homeless achieve a better life?  Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.  And if you enjoyed this post, share it, let me know by giving it a “Thumbs Up,” and donate what you can today.

About: JD Miller is a senior technology executive with a career spanning small startups and large public companies.  He uses this expertise to help organizations increase and sustain sales performance.  He is also active in Chicago’s philanthropic community, with a special interest in issues related to hunger and homelessness.

You can follow Dr. Miller on Twitter @JDM_Chicago

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